Dave McKean’s MirrorMask (above) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth were released within a year of each other. Both are women-in-wonderland tales. Pan’s Labyrinth is about a little girl who flees from her evil Spanish-fascist stepfather into a woodsy fairyland. MirrorMask is about a ‘tween with a dying mom who enters a dream world in order to save her.
Pan’s Labyrinth has some exceptional fantasy sequences, but is also in many ways clichéd and trite. The evil stepfather is a one-dimensional moustache-twirling stock villain. The actress playing the little girl is not very expressive. Worst of all is the fairytale kingdom at the film’s end where the little girl becomes a princess. It looks like a Burger King commercial!
MirrorMask starts slowly – you can more or less skip the first 20 minutes taking place in the “real” world – but once the girl, Helena, crosses over into McKean’s computer-animated dream world, the film becomes something genuinely rich and strange. The screenplay is by Neil Gaiman (author of the book on which Coraline is based). Gaiman’s frequent collaborator, Dave McKean not only co-wrote the story and directed it, but is responsible for the film’s production design. The originality of McKean’s imagery – part Hieronymous Bosch/part modern Surrealism – is what makes the film something to see.
Pan’s Labyrinth opened to nearly universal acclaim. Stephen King called it “the best fantasy film since The Wizard of Oz.” It won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Makeup. (The cinematography and creature makeup was indeed quite good.)
But the more original MirrorMask was virtually ignored. How come?
Harold Bloom in The Western Canon points to “singularity” and “strangeness” as marks of truly great art. Artists like Shakespeare, Cervantes, Milton, and Dante represent a distinct and disorienting break from the writers that preceded them. They teach us how to read them. Just as genuinely original film artists like Antonioni, Brakhage, Tarkovsky, Godard, or Lynch – all disorienting on a first viewing – teach us how to watch their films. Singularity and strangeness may prevail in the long term, but in the short term they can be an audience turn-off.
MirrorMask was a little too strange to be immediately popular. Its imagery is closer to Max Ernst than to Walt Disney. Instead of the usual John-Williamsesque music that accompanies most fantasy films these days, it has an abstract jazz score. Even the film’s “reality” sequences are expressionistically stylized, taking place in a sort of faux-Fellini circus world. Audiences need something familiar to hold onto before they take off into a dream world, and MirrorMask fails to provide them with that.
In the following clip, Helena has been captured by the Queen of Shadows (left), a dark mirror version of her real-world mother. (As noted in our Psycho post, alternate realities are often inhabited by distorted mirror versions of the loved ones the protagonists leave behind.) The Shadow Queen’s clockwork handmaidens hypnotize Helena and transform her into a simulacrum of the Queen’s own dark daughter.
With a tip of the hat to Burt Bacharach and Karen Carpenter. Enjoy![youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cz8-7JsFD_g]