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Children of the eighties were raised on some of the best fantasy movies ever made, things like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Legend, and The NeverEnding Story. They were real, dreamlike, enchanting… and not without valuable lessons, like ‘the balance of good and evil,’ and ‘don’t sell your baby brother to goblins.’

Mirrormask is the first film I’ve seen in years that has this same kind of magic. I’d go so far as to say the overall atmosphere surpasses anything I’ve ever seen; the art, camera work, dialogue, story, and soundtrack all seem to work as one force. Virtually the only thing I can fault the movie on is a gradual and limited release. From now until Christmas, it will be gradually opening in theatres across the country, so I encourage you all to see this film the first chance you get (and the second, and the third…).

Sony Official Site - Click the poster for a list of theatres and release dates.

I’m not saying this film is the solution to life’s problems, or the greatest film ever made, or even the best movie you’ll see this year, but it left me in total awe.

Let us start with the story.

Helena is a circus performer, more specifically, a juggler. This is not her choice; her dad owns the circus and her mom helps to run it, and they all perform. Helena dreams of running away to join “Real Life,” and finds her only escape in her art, which she plasters all over the walls of her camper. As with all good stories, then something happens. As a result, her world is in jeopardy of falling totally and utterly apart. One night, she wakes up to the sound of a violin, and follows the sound into another world (more specifically, the world inside the drawings on her walls). She gets caught up in an RPG-esque quest to save this world from destruction, and real life parallels are played out beautifully and often subtly (less so if you read the book, which I do recommend).

Now, if you are a geek, and I’m assuming if you’re here, you are, then you know Neil Gaiman has a way with words. His style is unique and he has a definite brand of humor all his own. The dialogue in the film is all Gaiman’s (he wrote the screenplay in addition to the book) and while his voice is there in the background, the characters have a life and voice all their own. Helena is no damsel in distress, and Valentine, her juggling partner and only friend in the dream world, is no knight in shining armor. They both have their faults, some more pronounced than others, and it’s startlingly refreshing, to be honest.

And then there’s the art.

The art is what really sets this movie apart and makes it such a stunning film. Dave McKean, who has worked with Gaiman on several other literary projects, such as Sandman, Coraline, The Wolves in the Walls, and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, did some writing and directing, and is responsible for the visual style of the film. With the aid of several talented CG artists and the Jim Henson Creature Shop, the movie is brought to life.

A brief side note: Most of the time, I feel CG is a copout. With the exception of Pixar’s The Incredibles, I have always felt that CG lacks tangibility. It’s what makes claymation and Jim Henson ventures that much more amazing. Mirrormask uses lots of CG. But the mood of the whole film is profoundly dreamlike, and the CG helps. It does not look as real as some of the grittier and awesome aspects of the film, like the Dark Queen, but even she is made up and styled to look rather unhuman. Helena appears as virtually the only “real” element in the world, and I can’t help but believe that’s entirely intentional and done to great effect.

Another brief sidenote on the art: The opening credits are the coolest I have ever seen in any film ever.

And now, the music!

This is what fleshed out the film entirely for me. It’s not quite jazz, but that’s the closest I can think of. It’s totally bizarre, and fits the film perfectly. Iaian Ballamy, a composer I don’t think I’ve ever heard before, does a fabulous job with the score. It’s dreamy, chilling, fun, crazy… whatever it needs to be, similar enough to flow, but not repetitive. Admittedly, if you don’t like the soundtrack (that is, if the mere mention of a soprano saxophone makes you cringe), then you will probably have a hard time getting into this film. Regardless, I think this is one of the most remarkable soundtracks I’ve heard in awhile, and one of the few that really drives the film, rather than merely accompanying it.

On the subject of the book.

I loved this story. So, to tide me over until I can buy this DVD and watch it all the time, I bought the book. It’s short, hardcover, filled with McKean’s art and movie stills. It’s the whole story as told by Helena, which is quite interesting, as the movie has more of an omniscient narrative, but doesn’t get quite as “into” Helena’s head as the book does. I also have to admit that I’m utterly hopeless at interpreting symbols in films, unless they are blunt to the point of insulting, so having them written out rather than spelled out helped me to “get” the story and totally understand the parallels. Another thing I love about the book is the use of text as art on the page. The story begins with small, regular font in short, regular paragraphs… and then the size will vary, and soon the font changes, the text is moving in diagonals and curves, and… it’s awesome. I’d certainly recommend taking in both the book and the movie, but I’m not sure if there’s a “best” order. This worked for me, and I really liked spending two hours not knowing where the story would be going, rather than the 20 minutes reading the book.

In conclusion, see this movie. I doubt you could be disappointed.

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