Mirrormask (2005)

I love the art of Dave McKean. It’s like taking drugs without having to take drugs.

McKean created the bizzare, imaginative covers of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman for its entire 75-issue run. He’s done CD covers, posters and more recently, film.

Mirrormask is McKean’s first feature-length work, and of course, his good friend Gaiman wrote the script.

Although Gaiman scored a homerun with The Sandman, his other works seems to be hit and miss. I wasn’t fond of Stardust, and the novelization of Neverwhere didn’t make me curious about how it turned out as a television series.

And crossover is such tricky terrain. Just because McKean and Gaiman created some incredible comics — go read Violent Cases and Signal to Noise right now — it doesn’t necessarily mean that vision translates in other media.

My fears were pretty much unfounded.

Mirrormask has Gaiman’s trademark balance of fantasy and reality. Just beyond a window pane or a mirror surface, a fantastical parallel world exists. Perhaps a dream world. Perhaps not.

Mirrormask begins with a mother-daughter spat. Helena doesn’t want to live the circus life anymore, and she resists getting into costume for a show. "You’ll be the death of me," her mother sighs. "I wish I were," Helena retorts.

Of course, Helena’s mother collapses moments later before she was to head into the tent in a gorilla suite.

Feeling the weight of her guilt and not getting the chance to apologize properly, Helena goes to sleep and dreams. She wakes up in the middle of the night and wanders outside to investigate someone playing the violin. She encounters a pair of jugglers, but before she can find out more about them, shadows engulf the street, hastening her escape into strange world.

The balance of this world has been disrupted — the Queen of Light is asleep, and only a charm can wake her. Thing is, nobody knows what the charm is. Helena and her sidekick, Valentine, venture to find the charm, all the while dodging the shadows from the Land of Dark.

It’s no coincidence Helena’s artwork, which adorns her bedroom walls, looks remarkably like McKean’s, and it’s no surprise the world in which Helena finds herself looks a lot like her drawings.

I’ve never seen a Terry Gilliam film, but I’m sure that’s the appropriate name to drop to describe the film’s visual style. It’s a mix of past and future, with bizarre masks and strange creatures. Books literally fly off the shelves of a library, and monkeybirds propel themselves off bars to get airborne.

The visual effects are incredibly imaginative and have McKean’s imprint all over them.

Gaiman’s story is engaging. He’s fond of fairy tales, and his prose attempts to capture that minimalism. That quality drives Mirrormask to great effect. He’s also good at telling bildingsroman, and Mirrormask is a tale about a girl attempting to deal with an adult world.

As a first feature film by either author — save for Gaiman’s turn adapting Miyazaki Hayao’s Princess Mononoke in English — it’s an impressive start. The stunning storytelling the pair have done in comics survives the leap to the big screen.