In MirrorMask, as in most children’s fantasy films, the onset of puberty presents a crisis. This first effort from director Dave McKean and writer Neil Gaiman is a coming-of-age story about Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), who feels stifled as part of a family of circus performers. Early on, we’re shown that her life is every child’s dream: during her juggling performance, the camera pans across an audience of dull young faces watching the colorful spectacle from the shadows. The circus may be cut off from the rest of the world, but her family and friends are all with her on stage.
In the logic of the film, this is all she needs. Still, she’s dissatisfied, and her journey into the world of dreams is precipitated by her desire to leave this seeming paradise and seek her fortune “on the outside.” Before having some sort of incapacitating attack (it’s never fully explained), Helena’s mother Joanne (Gina McKee) tells her, “You can’t handle real life!” In a different film, this assertion might be interpreted as a challenge, motivation for Helena to face adulthood. Instead, guilt over her mother’s sudden illness must be resolved through an extended dream sequence that makes up most of the movie. Helena “grows up” by immersing herself even more deeply in a closed-off fantasy world.
The “look” of this world is nothing if not unique. McKean made a name for himself creating the covers for Gaiman’s landmark Sandman comics series, and his distinctive style saturates every twisted alleyway and bizarre denizen of Helena’s sepia-toned dream city. Semi-transparent, two-dimensional images — words, drawings, and colors — drift in and out of the scenery. The CGI is not cutting-edge, and if you squint hard enough, you can just about see the empty soundstage, but the setting’s weightlessness accentuates its status as dream, as malleable fantasy. This is not a concrete world, it’s a psychodramatic playground. Nevertheless, its consequences are very real.
Joanne and Helena are each split along with the dream landscape into two halves, rather prosaically identified as “light” and “dark.” The dark half, led by Evil Joanne, is taking over, because Evil Helena has escaped to the real world. Helena catches the occasional glimpse of herself in her bedroom, dressing like a punk, smoking, flirting with boys, and generally being a poster child for juvenile delinquency. In Alice in Wonderland-type films like this, the fantasy is at least the equal of the fictional version of reality that frames it, thereby devaluing the reality that exists offscreen.
The film’s “real” world is portrayed as little more than a source of heartbreak, driven by cash and rife with decadence (its color scheme, predictably, is uniformly cold and drab). In Helena’s dream world, by contrast, problems are surmountable with a quick wit, a bit of daring, and a good helping of emotional honesty. It also requires that one takes fantasies seriously. That they aren’t “real” doesn’t devalue them, it only makes their occasional terrors less terrifying.
Helena’s wisecracking sidekick Valentine (Jason Barry) is shown a vision of his waking life as a waiter, and Joanne makes a throwaway Waking Life-ish remark, suggesting that Helena is part of her dream. None of it really adds up, but the message is clear: all three characters have emotional handicaps that need to be worked out if their lives are going to measure up to their dreams.
The film enforces duality at every step, from the art direction to the thematic subtext. In one scene, the dream world’s origin is likened to a piece of paper with drawings on both sides; it looks and feels much like an unusually intricate comic book. There are good guys and bad guys, but since they are actually two sides of a single set of individuals, it is the self that is cleanly divided into good and bad qualities. Good is fantasy, creativity, and staying close to one’s family. Bad is confusing, three-dimensional reality and anything to do with seeking it out. “You can’t run away from home without ruining someone’s life,” one character admonishes, reinforcing Helena’s guilt over her mother’s illness. It’s irrational, yes, but the film can’t give fantasy the power it wants to without the connection between Helena’s desire to run away and the threat to her mother’s life making some kind of sense.
The mirrormask, when finally revealed, is Helena’s ticket back to her body. It gives her the power to reabsorb her dark half, thereby putting her wayward ambitions back under control. “I just want a real life!” Evil Helena screams in protest. But, as the film (and Good Helena, now finally grasping her mother’s wisdom) tells us, she can’t handle real life. What is most often associated with coming of age, the need to be taken seriously as an adult, is denied. Seeking personal freedom and independence can be a painful process that causes more problems than it solves. But reducing the complexity of adolescence to two dimensions is a fantasy that deserves to be outgrown.