I am punishing myself today for not seeing MirrorMask in the theater.
I sat down to watch this last night because I was tired and wanted something that wouldn’t demand too much attention… something that would, basically, take my mind off of the busy day and help me shift gears toward sleeping.
I wasn’t prepared to see something that would send me running back to revise my Best of 2005 list.
I should have trusted the Jim Henson Company… this is an addition to their canon worthy of standing beside Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Sure, it’s a very different kind of animation than the puppetry of those shows, but this is one of the most beautiful works of CGI/live-action blending I’ve ever seen.
Pure imagination. Surprises. Awe-inspiring spectacles. Endearing performances. Unforgettable characters. A dreamlike tone that is sustained throughout, operating with all of the confounding leaps in logic and the unsettling strangeness that is true of most real dreams. So the heroine, Helene, doesn’t seem disoriented by the fact that she’s stepped into Wonderland… that’s the way dreams are! So she hardly blinks when she encounters bizarre and alien intelligence… that’s the way dreams are!
I haven’t seen a film with such an original vision for environments, creatures, and characters since… oh… The Dark Crystal. It makes the folks running the Harry Potter films, the Narnia movie, and the Star Wars universe look positively unimaginative.
And I was surprised and pleased by its storyline. The previews had led me to believe it was JUST about the effects. But I was actually quite touched by its Alice in Wonderland/Wizard of Oz tale of a girl who, traumatized by grief and by her frustrations with her mother, finds her “darker self” taking over while she herself escapes into imagination to try and work through her fears. In the end, she faces a choice… to let her darker self triumph (the self that rebels, responds with anger, plunges into reckless self-indulgence), or to fight back with an attitude of hope, understanding, and reconciliation.
MirrorMask walks a different ideological path than The Dark Crystal, which portrayed Good and Evil as Equals that need to exist in Balance. While Mirrormask also talks a lot about “balance,” evil is definitely something to suppress and overcome here.
The performances were understated. The dreamscapes are awe-inspiring. There are some unforgettable characters. The mask designs, from the sphinxes to the charming, Mr. Tumnus-like character of Valentine, to the Giants Orbiting, are fantastic. The humor is sly, dry, and unpredictable.
And the wicked witch (played by Gina McKee) is far, far more frightening and interesting than the White Witch of big screen Narnia.
This is easily my favorite fantasy film of 2005… outdoing Howl’s Moving Castle, Narnia, and Star Wars, Episode Three. Goes to show how small budgets armed with big imaginations can out-do the big-budget crowdpleasers like Adamson. As much as I’m rooting for Adamson to improve upon his Wardrobe film with a more imaginative and original vision for the sequel, I’d be much more excited about seeing a sequel to Mirrormask than Prince Caspian.
Anybody who loves fantasy, fairy tales, and childrens’ stories should make this one a must-rent.
Once again, it’s Adam Walter’s enthusiasm that sent me out to rent this. Since he also spurred me to go see Tony Takitani, I’m learning to trust his instincts.