Since those who aren't comic fans are likely unfamiliar with Gaiman and McKean, describing the sheer individuality at hand presents a greater challenge. How about this: If you were to hit yourself quite hard in the head, then walk into the Museum of Modern Art, where you could literally enter the paintings as all the sculptures came to life and started talking with English accents, you might approximate the world of MirrorMask. Put another way: When Tim Burton manages to see this movie, he'll realize he just got owned.
Gaiman and McKean's mandate from the Jim Henson Company was to create something in a similar vein to The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, movies that bombed on initial release but have steadily grown in popularity over the years. Because of the strong possibility that a new Henson fantasy might similarly swan dive at the box office only to recoup on DVD, the budget allotted to MirrorMask was a mere $4 million.
Still, thanks to a lack of time constraints, the precedent set by the likes of Robert Rodriguez, and a team of young and hungry computer animators, McKean has made an astounding feature directorial debut that looks as amazing as anything on-screen this year. The word "masterpiece," so often inappropriately abused by those bereft of a thesaurus and a sense of perspective, would not be out of place here. Not everything looks realistic, but not everything is supposed to. Like McKean's illustrations, the movie combines drawings, photos, hazy filters, superimpositions, and computer effects into a pastiche both beautiful and disturbing.
Those who criticize MirrorMask will likely decry its relative lack of plot -- basically, the daughter of two circus performers enters a dream world in which she must find the eponymous mask in order to trade places with an evil goth doppelgänger who has replaced her back in reality (the evil substitute could easily be taken as a sarcastic parody of the typical Gaiman fan). Indeed, the script follows dream logic, which is to say that things proceed simply because they do, with characters occasionally figuring out the next step without explanation.
But it works, in large part because the pacing and the dialogue are also delivered as if in a dream. That, and occasional doses of Monty Pythonesque humor to show that Gaiman and McKean don't take this too seriously (comic actors like Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry provide voices for some of the creatures). At any rate, it's a much better-acted, better-performed story than The Dark Crystal, and it isn't burdened with the pathetic ending and forgettable songs of Labyrinth; the only musical number here is the most disturbing rendition of Burt Bacharach's "Close to You" that you'll ever see. Not to say that the soundtrack is perfect: McKean has an unfortunate fondness for jazz saxophone during the first half of the story. Those hoping that his artistic collaborations with the likes of Tori Amos and Alice Cooper would pay dividends here will be very disappointed.
Ah, but why worry about that? When you buy this thing on DVD, you can turn down the sound and crank your own tunes; very little of the overall effect will be lost. Funnily enough, at one point our heroine Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is given a crucial piece of advice: "Get higher." She can't imagine what it means, but you can hazard your own interpretation.
It's interesting that the female lead is named Helena, because Leonidas is very reminiscent of a young Helena Bonham Carter, and if this movie is any indication of future output, they'll probably share a fan base. Like most of the cast, the actress does double duty, playing Helena and Evil Helena. Notting Hill's Gina McKee plays not only Helena's mother, but also the dream world's Queen of Light and Queen of Shadows. Jason Barry is the most impressive of the bunch, playing Irish-accented juggler Valentine from behind a mask that completely covers the upper half of his face, while stealing the show nonetheless.
Gaiman and McKean are influenced in their story by the best. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Neverending Story are blatant founts of inspiration, as is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- Helena spends almost the entire adventure in her pajamas. Hayao Miyazaki may not have been as direct a source, but both Howl's Moving Castle and MirrorMask feature a fortress on bird legs that owes much to Terry Gilliam. Some of this stuff, though, is its own thing -- the human-faced sphinxes, for example, or the anthropomorphic porcupine character who shows up near the end. This is a film that cries out for action figures; why aren't there any?