Saturday, October 10, 2015

Nitpickery: MirrorMask

Hey y'all.  So I watched Mirrormask.  It was part of a three-pack including The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and my friend insisted that I see it.  We were having a discussion about old, classic fantasies, and so Mirrormask.

How is the movie, you ask?  It's a 5 out of ten, average.  It's the most 5 of any 5 I've ever seen.  That is, it's a combination of very good things and very weak things that all balance out in the end.  I do like it, because there's a level of thought in the film that a lot of modern films don't have.  The filmmakers obvious care, and if they care, I care.  All the same, there are several weaknesses in the film that could use work.  It's rather like an old, fancy house.  It's lovely, but we still have to break out the power tools before we can sell the place.

Nitpickery is spoilers. 

And so summary: Mirrormask is the story of Helena Campbell, a circus performing 15 year old who wants out of the life.  Her parents are dedicated to it, and as a result, Helena has a nasty argument with her mother, Joanne.  Joanne passes out after a performance, requiring hospitalization from something life threatening.  The night of her mother's surgery, Helena falls into a fantasy consisting of beings she's created in her drawings.

In this realm, ruled by a light queen and a dark queen, Helena must find the mirrormask to save the light queen from a deep sleep, all while avoiding the dark queen's machinations.  Both queens resemble her mother, and a strange girl she sees through certain windows resembles herself -- only as Helena is trapped in the dream world, her counterpart is in reality, rebelling against her father.  Not only that, but anti-Helena is destroying all of Helena's drawings, and the dream world along with it.  It's up to Helena and her newfound friend Valentine to journey together to find the mirror mask, which will enable her to switch back and come home.

Only nine notes, this time.

9.  The beginning of the movie is near perfect.

It's amazing.  I'm watching the film again as I write this, and the beginning, before Helena enters the fantasy realm, it's a fabulous film.  There's a cold, casual grit to it, and all the performances are great.  Even the smaller characters shine.  Someone said that the movie started to suck about the time Helena traveled, and while I don't agree with that sentiment, it is a fulfilling movie before this point.  If the whole thing had been a surrealistically-shot but otherwise realistic story about a girl coping with her mother's condition and her own pride, then hey, that could have worked too.  Might even have been really interesting. 

Perhaps the most pertinent reason why the beginning is so good is that it doesn't feel, at this point, like it's trying to market itself to anyone.  It's its own story at this point.  Ultimately it is in the comparison to other stuff that takes this movie down. I watched it on a DVD set that came with The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, so clearly whoever did that wanted to capitalize on the old film fantasy thing.  Likewise with this being done by the Jim Henson studios -- gotta hitch the wagon on the famous filmmaker, yo.  That's why no one should name their studios after themselves.  People might mistake it for something actually made by them.  Henson was in fact dead for fifteen years when this movie came out.

8.  A "visual feast"?

Let's talk about an accusation that gets thrown around a lot.  People say that this film is all visuals and no story.  That's not quite true.  For one thing, the visuals are oftentimes questionable, looking like they came straight out of the nineties. Kinda hard to call it a visual feast, and it's surprising how they went for that when they knew their budget was so small.  And for another, this does have a story.  It's just really choppy and poorly constructed.  But certainly, story was sacrificed for visual appeal.  This isn't true at all before the entrance to the dream world, but afterwards, the story definitely becomes an excuse for things to show up on screen.  Granted, some scenes are worse than others in this regard.

It's simpler to go over the visuals first.  Obviously, a lot of care and thought went into them.  Or some of them, at least.  Sometimes I wonder if this is bias because of modern technology -- we forget that visuals really are expensive, and complain about stuff that we should just accept.  In any case, the visuals for the real world are generally very good.  Their choice of locations was spot on, and the masks given to the circus performers, while not always the best looking, perfectly emphasize the story of the little circus that could.  Some of them even foreshadow the story, particularly Joanne's split colored mask (the thing on its mouth was weird looking, though).

In the dream world, there are the digital characters and the humans with makeup.  Usually the latter group is very good.  Most of these characters are one-sceners, but the masks are very imaginative and fun.  With one single exception.  The Prime Minister -- the guy who tells Helena about the fate of the light queen -- has an awful mask.  I've mentioned it in my past post.  He's the one who looks like he's wearing painted tinfoil.  It's kinda just taped to the front of his crown, and spreads out like a double mustache.  We can even see 80% of his face, defeating the point of even having a mask.  Granted, they probably did it to show that this is the same guy who plays Helena's father, but since nothing relevant comes of this parallel, it's narratively pointless.  Get the guy a pretty mask, or let him just have the crown.

Still, most of the makeup work was good.  It's the digital visuals that aren't so hot.  It's making me really miss the muppets, but certainly those would have been too expensive for this film.  CGI is always a risky venture, particularly with multiples.  The bird-apes all look copy-pasted, as do the caterpillar men (but that latter at least make narrative sense -- they're caterpillar segments).  A repeated detail across various creatures is having human faces or parts of them slathered across their wonky, digital bodies.  This usually happens with mouths.  Even if this where done up with a proper budget, it's still conceptually very nineties.  Nineties CGI isn't good.

Some of the digital beings are pretty cute.  For example, some of the creatures fleeing the land of light at the beginning are interesting.  One has two shoes for a head, soles facing each other which flap when he talks.  His wife is a fish-headed person.  Granted, none of these are phenomenal in the way Jim Henson's muppets were, but they are conceptually nice.

Things go downward from there.  The Librarian looks like Windows 98 clip art.  The clockwork dressmaidens are slapdash.  The worst, artistically speaking, are the sphinxes.  They have human faces over cat-like bodies, with rainbow wings.  It's the cheesiest thing you've ever seen.  Given that these creatures are supposed to be frightening, the effect is rather spoiled.  Quite frankly, the librarian is scarier than they are. 

Probably my favorite visual is the dark queen's flying face near the end.  This, and another good visual -- the twin rock giants -- are pretty compelling if the video is on mute.  Unfortunately, these are, for various reasons, the narratively weakest scenes in the entire film.  Actually, maybe it isn't so much that they stifled story to promote visuals.  It's probably more like they shoved in visuals to distract someone from the iffiness in the story.

Overall, though, if you're fond of cheesy imagery, you'll probably forgive most of the weaknesses of the CGI characters.  They're cute, in an "isn't that so precious?" way.  Which is certainly another reason why Mirrormask shouldn't be compared to Henson's gorgeous creations in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.  It simply doesn't have the budget to compare, assuming CGI of any kind is capable of being as artful as the muppets.

Brief comment on the soundtrack: it's overwhelming.  The jazz does run across the grain, and for the most part only kicks the 90s cheese into high gear.  Also, occasionally the mix for the music is too loud compared to the dialogue, like in the mask shop.  The end credits song was really good, though.  Appropriate for the film.

But hey, criticizing story is what I'm all about, so let's get to it.

7.  The transition into fantasy is the beginning of the trouble.

After a trippy dream sequence, Helena appears in what she thinks is the apartment building where her aunt lives.  She then encounters two jugglers and a violinist.  She then bugs the violinist because he looks like someone from the circus.  Then a murky substance called the shadow creeps along the wall, turning the violinist into brittle, crumbling rocks.  One of the jugglers also gets hit, but the other helps Helena get out of there by throwing a book at a sphinx, and riding two more out of there.

There's immediately pacing and mood problems.  It's fine to start off with an action bit, but for a minute there it seemed like something would come out of the violinist looking like someone Helena knows.  Nothing ever does, and it feels derivative of the Wizard of Oz for the pointless comparison.  It's fine to re-use actors, but this should never be called out unless it's a plot point.  For example, it's plot relevant for the queens to look like Helena's mother for many reasons.  But is the circus guy a phantom from her imagination or another dreamer?  Maybe it's supposed to be a rich detail or whatever, but since he's basically a redshirt with no payoff, it feels pointless.

And then both he and a juggler die, because they aren't important enough to the story to live.  The other juggler, Valentine, and Helena escape by...going through a door.  That stops a mystical slime-smoke how, exactly?  It even oozes through the bottom of the door, then stops moving.  Why?  It was going pretty fast before.  This is where a sphinx appears, and Helena has to throw it a book to make it leave them alone.  Uh, did they really need to have two different antagonistic elements?  It's easy enough just to have the slime/smoke chase them until they get a chance to ride library books out of there.

This jump from fleeing a quick, malevolent smoke-slime (running from an active pursuer) to subduing a cat creature (outwitting a curious predator) is jolting.  What needed to happen was a slightly longer scene, where Valentine and Helena outrun the smoke-slime, think they're safe, and then oh no!  A sphinx!  Quick, find some books!  Frantic searching until...found them!  Just one or two more minutes to properly transition it all before they fly away on their library books.  More than just a quick switching of antagonists for the sake of setup.

The library book thing was cute, though.  If a book feels like someone doesn't like it, it will travel back to the library, and people can ride them.  That's the kind of world detail that is both fantastic and narratively interesting.  It implies a bigger world, unlike most of the detail in the film, which is weird purely for weirdness' sake.

6.  The story is a jumble.

A main problem with the story is that it never seems to know which details to explain and which to keep a mystery.  There's also massive weaknesses in setups.  That is, a thing will be referenced, but never become an important plot point. 

For example, Helena is made fun of for not wearing a mask, but after the first few minutes of being in the dream world, no one ever brings it up again.  Not to mention that many of the characters aren't wearing masks, particularly the CGI characters.  The Prime Minister's face is mostly exposed, so how is he that different from Helena?  Why doesn't he get made fun of?  He also seems weirded out by Helena's lack of a mask, yet never criticizes anti-Helena, the dark queen's daughter, for going without one.  You'd think he would, given that her taking the mirror mask is what sinks the light queen into her seemingly eternal doze.  Maybe he'd associate a lack of mask with bad behavior, if this were a consistent world.

Finally, if the light queen doesn't wear a mask, shouldn't that be weird?  Or is the mirror mask what she would be wearing ordinarily?  Who knows?  It's not like the movie makers ever told us.

One of the weirder things about the story is that most ways Helena gets from place to place are pretty contrived.  Okay, so it makes sense that she would be taken in to the Prime Minister, as she looks like the mirror mask thief.  Perfect sense right there.  But then he just tells her about the light queen and all?  Why is the Prime Minister taking a stranger who looks like an enemy to see the queen?  Well, that by itself isn't so bad.  That's a very dream-like thing to happen, because everyone's the protagonist in their dreams.

Helen goes to the library for information, okay.  But then she finds her next target by seeing a light out the window?  What?  What is it about a shiny light that means she'll find what she's looking for?  As she's walking to her next destination (the orbiting giants), she sees through another window into the real world, and manages to get a glimpse of a drawing she did with fish swimming down the road -- the very road she's walking on in her dream.  You'd have thought that she would have realized already in the library that everything there is based on her drawings.  The "History of Everything" book did state as  much.

All the same, how do we know that fish road is "the right way"?  Do fish always lead to helpful things?  Does Helena remember that she drew fish road, and that it leads to helpful giants?  It would have helped if she'd said so.  Since the giants are supposedly the result of her art, she should have some reason for drawing them.  They can be her idea of romance, or something.  As is, a shiny light tells her to go that way, and fish means she's doing it right.  For some reason.

We'll go over this scene later, but the giants leave Helena with this piece of advice, "get higher."  Okay.  But why do they want her to get higher?  I thought it was originally to get her away from the slime/smoke covering the land, but apparently that's just something the dark queen did to try and get her daughter back.  All that's higher are the bird apes, all named Bob (laaaazy).  There's nothing there Helena needs, unless the giants meant for her to get help from the birds.  The birds didn't even seem to appear to understand her, and it took a careless move from the slime/smoke to get them to actually help.  And they help by carrying her.  Which is fine, except that again Helena decides where to go next based purely on another shiny lens flare.

Sheesh.  Helena would never find her way anywhere if she were trapped on Abram's (not) Trek. 

Then there's weird things that are never set up, but get payoffs.  Like the future fruit.  Right in the middle of the final chase, where all Helena has to do is look through a window while wearing the mirror mask, companion Valentine suddenly gets hungry.  He then eats a fruit, which a random passerby tells Helena is a future fruit.  Valentine gets a vision of his non-dream world persona, and then scene.  Back to running.

Um, why?  Why was the future fruit, something that powerful, not mentioned sooner?  Maybe someone could have told Helena about it, and she could attempt to use it to find if she gets the mirror mask or not.  Or maybe she reads about it in the library while looking for other information.  Also, why is this jammed in a part where Helena needs all the speed she can get?  Shouldn't she just ditch Valentine and go on?  What value does his reveal as a normal person give the film?  It would have just as much impact, perhaps even more, if his appearance at the very end were his only real-world cameo.

Y'know what?  Let's just get this guy out of the way.  There's more to talk about on how jumbled the story is, but we'll get to it as we touch on individual aspects.

5.  Valentine is a real drag on this movie.

Now, a journey type story does require a companion or two.  Valentine even has the best makeup of the movie.  But, in both concept and execution, he's weak.  Very weak.  For primarily a couple of reasons.  First, he's portrayed terribly.  Jason Barry doesn't do a good job with this guy.  He goes into the role with all the ham and over-sincerity of the host on Blue's Clues.  While the other actors do adequate jobs, Barry consistently tries way too hard in his scenes.  It's annoying, particularly since Stephanie Leonidas, Helena's actress, adds so much life to every scene.  She's marvelous, and it's annoying that she has to act her way through the movie with a lesser talent at her side.

At the same time, I'm to a degree willing to blame the director and writers.  The writers definitely gave Barry no help.  The Valentine character is supposed to be a teenager, but he speaks like a child and has a childish arc.  It's no surprise that his acting is consistent with this kind of writing.


What's his arc?  Refusing to say "sorry" to a tower.  The climactic moment in this conflict?  Valentine finally says sorry and the tower rescues him and Helena.  The tower is treated like it's a person, but it shows up the very instant Valentine says sorry.  Uh, how can it hear or see him?  How does it feel about Valentine?  The tower was just about to leave Valentine to certain death, and a "sorry" was what convinced it to change its mind?  Just "sorry"?  If it really cared, wouldn't it save Valentine anyway?  If it didn't, "sorry" probably wouldn't have any affect at all.  Unless it was grudgingly paying back some old favor.  We never find out, though.  The tower is just a narrative convenience to get Helena to win in the end. 

To make it worse, Valentine spends the entire journey whining about things.  Whether about perfectly legitimate advice or completing the job he could quit at any time, Valentine always finds a way to be negative about whatever's going on.  He even repeats his negative comments about the advice givers after they've already proven themselves trustworthy.

It doesn't help that his first impression is pretty terrible.  In the scene where Helena finally gets a chance to talk with him after escaping the smoke/slime, he reveals that his friends, the ones that died when Helena entered the fantasy world, were people he only cared about for his own sake.  They'd help him put on a juggling show, and it's awfully inconvenient now that he has to find replacements.  He's not even that upset that his friends died horribly.  He pities no one but himself.

You know, this type of character isn't a total wash.  No, really.  It can a story with simpler themes, clearer rules, and no death.  That is, children's movies.  Valentine is the primary (but not only) aspect of the movie that is too childish for it.  So this is about teenage rebellion while one's mother is on the edge of death.  How do we make it better?  Cram in a duckupine, cheesy dialogue, extremely obvious symbolism, and a companion who would be better suited for an episode of Sesame Street, of course.

Valentine is just too simplistic.  Moreover, we don't even get to know his background, or the background of his real world counterpart.  It feels almost as though they are the same person.  They're both goofy, silly, bad-joke-making dudes.  Why isn't Valentine different from anti-Valentine?  Are both his counterparts the same?  If so, why is Helena split into two?

The movie ends with Helena in the real world, making a "joke" referencing her experiences with Valentine to his real world counterpart.  Awkward laughter, credits.  Sigh.

4. The fantasy world in this film is never consistent in what it's supposed to be.

A scene in the library where Helena reads a book on its origins states that her drawings are the basis of its existence.  Helena, however, believes it's all her dream.  And then the light queen, turns into Helena's mother, who believes she's the one dreaming (why is she having surgery in the middle of the night?  Is that normal?).  Valentine then is revealed to be a real person, and moreover one neither woman knew beforehand.  It's also stated later in the film that anti-Helena caused damage to the fantasy world simply by leaving it.

(I looked it up.  While apparently night surgeries are/were a thing, they also take longer and have an increased chance for the patient to die.  Or so said a study done concerning liver transplants.  Another option said that it didn't make a difference, because doctors might not have a full night's sleep at any point of the day.)

Okay, so that leaves us with several options.
- It's the world of Helena's drawings, that she and she alone created.
- It's Helena's dream, which happens to be about her drawings.
- It's a collective dream, which for some unexplained reason involves her drawings and has no other inspiration.
- It's a real place that only people's dream dopplegangers are allowed to live, and it's wrong for waking citizens to go there.

I know what the supporters would say.  They'll say that it's supposed to be like Labyrinth, where we don't know if it's real or not.  Thing is, it worked with Labyrinth because the fantasy world works either way.  In that story, Sarah is a dramatic teenager who gets irritated with her little brother and wishes that the goblin king would take him away.  And then the goblin king does.  If the adventure Sarah goes on to get her brother back is real, then it's a wonderful way for Sarah to learn her lesson.  If it was all just in Sarah's imagination, then she's had a personal epiphany about her own selfishness, and the fantasy was just her way of expressing this epiphany poetically.  Both options are perfectly fine, so there's no need to elaborate which it is.

Also, neither option is important to the foundation of the goblin king's world.  Real or imagined, Labyrinth's fantasy world behaves on consistent rules.  The mechanics of said world are unaffected by the nature of the fantasy.

That's not the case with Mirrormask.  How we're supposed to interpret the movie depends heavily on what the dream world is supposed to be.  I only call it the dream world because dreams seem the most likely option -- this world is never named.  The rules of one possible option contradict the others.

For example, if it's a collective dream, why was Helena responsible for designing it?  If it's her own dream, I'll buy that her mother might be able to intrude on it.  They do love each other.  How did Valentine stumble on her world, then?  He was a stranger to them both.  If it's a world meant for the sleeping personas of people who would never ordinarily leave (i.e. anti-Helena), then why does Helena have any ability to control it?  Why does Joanne have two dopplegangers, as opposed to Helena's and Valentine's one?  Is the dark queen as much of a representation of Joanne as the light one?

So is the dark side evil or what?  Some of the people there seem alright, or they at least mind their own business.  The dark queen is the only one who does truly evil things, but she still is more concerned with helping her lands stay together than conquering the light kingdom.  There's little evidence that the slime/smoke was anything but an outragous means of getting her daughter back.  She never appears interested in conquest.

That's the real failing of the fantasy world in Mirrormask.  Because it never defined what its fantasy really is, the audience can't ever grasp the inherent rules of the place.  This is especially true once Helena starts to believe she's in a dream.  Everyone who knows that they're dreaming tries to control their dreams.  By having Helena do this in more than one scene, we'd get to see the limits of her power.

For example, dreams have ways of tripping people up, so her attempts to control the dream world should almost never turn out 100% as she intended.  This is demonstrated well exactly once, in the scene where she dreams up a room and a bridge -- only to find out that there's a pillar of nothing but locks, and she has to find the right one.  That's a very dreamlike thing, and if this rule were continued throughout more of the scenes, it would be fun.

It would also explain how Helena can know how to get from one place to another without any information whatsoever.  Sheesh.  If it's her dream, the movie needs to show her thinking about her drawings -- more than once -- and figuring out what they mean. That way we assume that the rules come from the drawings she created.

Having Helena attempt to exercise her powers would also be good in a collective dream.  Because Valentine and her mother have their own dreams, any attempt to control them should fail.  Like, if Helena got really angry at Valentine, she might use her powers to try and wipe him out of existence.  But she can't, because he's real.

Simply put, the world needs rules.  Rules of what can exist in it, and what can't.  Why its people live the way they do and how things would operate if the emergency weren't taking place.  None of these rules need be stated directly, but the audience needs to be able to know or guess what the fantasy's foundation is.  In Labyrinth, the foundation is Sarah's imagination (assuming what happened isn't real) or it's the books which Sarah has read (assuming that it's a magical place as described by Sarah's source for her knowledge of the goblin king). 

My favorite possible interpretation, however, is that it's all a fever dream, where not only are Helena's drawings invading her mind, but so are her secret desires and hidden dark side.  It's not the most likely interpretation for a couple of reasons, but it could have been a good one.  Because --

3. Anti-Helena needs more development.

I really like her conceptually.  So she's the dark queen's daughter, and Helena's dream doppelganger.  She represents the dark side of the rebellious teenager.  She's the girl that smokes, lights fires in her room, wears emo clothes, and makes out with losers.  All because she doesn't want to listen to her family and she knows her behavior will hurt them.

Thing is, the audience gets most of this through osmosis.  We only see anti-Helena through certain windows in the dream world, the ones that represent windows in Helena's drawings that still hang on her bedroom wall.  Thing is, anti-Helena is potentially a sympathizable character.  Her mother is supposedly smothering (we'll get to that in a bit), and she only wants to be free.  She's just going about it at the worst way possible.  And without considering that Helena herself isn't particularly free either.  Though, certainly having relaxed parents and an aunt is way less troublesome than having a queen who can shoot smoke/slime out of her mouth and spy on you with a spider eyeball.

Trouble is, we don't see enough of the dark queen's smothering.  Yes, we see her cover the light kingdom in slime/smoke (whatever the heck it is) which can kill light kingdom citizens easily, but so might any tyrant do when their daughter is lost.  It's entirely possible that this smoke/slime has other purposes, such as taking out the light queen while she's sleeping.  The only smothering thing we see that we know for sure is smothering is the dark queen having peepholes into her daughter's bedroom.

The reason why I bring it up is because late in the film, when Helena finally has the mask and must use it to switch back with anti-Helena, the dark queen shows up in the form of a flying face and insists that Helena return.  Helena then tells her to stop smothering, and the queen replies, "You mean...let her choose her own food, her own clothes, make her own decisions?"

The ultimate problem with this line is that we never see the dark queen do this to anti-Helena, and she barely does any of it to Helena, who she does know isn't her real daughter.   While the absurd dressing scene possibly implies that the dark queen drugs her daughter, we have no reason to know that the sparkle drugs weren't something she forced only on Helena.  We also don't know that the clockwork dressmaidens never let anti-Helena choose what to wear, nor is the dark queen shown ordering them to put something specific on Helena.

And heck, when does a queen even choose her own food?  She's bound to be busy with things, so except on certain occasions, it's way easier for a ruler to just let the cook decide what to make on a daily basis.  While we're at it, the dark queen is shown to care about her duties.  How is she not too busy to smother her daughter?  Wouldn't a real smother force anti-Helena to perform state duties with her?

Anti-Helena's actions are likewise iffy.  If she's never been in the real world, how does she expect to survive in it?  Heck, that's bound to be something interesting to watch.  And yet we get barely a glimpse.  Also, what was anti-Helena's plan?  Was she, like Helena, too dumb to quickly realize that the drawings were the dream world?  And when she realizes this, why doesn't she tear down all the drawings immediately?   She's shown burning some of them, so clearly she has no moral issues on that front.

Why did anti-Helena bother moving the drawing Helena is located on to the dark kingdom?  All she's doing is getting Helena closer to stopping her plans.  Anti-Helena might have hoped to spare her world the trouble of destroying it, but at no point does she show any concern for other people.  Besides, such a goal would be easily accomplished by simply running away from the apartment, and away from her counterpart's drawings.

Likewise, there's contradictory evidence.  Helena, while forced to be the dark queen's daughter, says this, "when she left she threw this whole world out of balance and now, it's falling apart."  Ignoring how Helena could possibly know that, she's placing the destructive catalyst on Helena's departure, not the tearing up of her drawings.  So which is it?  Is the world out of balance, or are the drawings the primary cause?

Also, anti-Helena's plans are questionable.  Everything she does to get the mirror mask and switch with Helena is clear, but after that, buh?  Wouldn't anti-Helena still have the mask?  If not, how did the mirror get to AH's bedroom?  Why did Helena think it was in the pillar with all the locks in it?  Did she remember drawing the pillar at some point?  Clearly both Helena and AH had logical reason to believe the mask could be there, as AH left a note and Helena showed up.  Why, though?  This location was originally at the border of the light and dark kingdoms, so sayeth the dialogue.  Didn't the light queen have it?  I thought AH took it from her.  Why would the queen store something so vital in a place so distant?  AH never had the key to the locks, so it couldn't have been stored there previously.

Long story short, we're supposed to be distracted by the shiny visuals to the point where we don't notice that anti-Helena does whatever the plot finds most convenient.  There is, however, a fix.  A very, very simple fix.  Have the plot confirm that AH and Helena are the same.  "But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being" -- and that evil is Helena's own doing.

AH is all the dark thoughts, secret desires, and hidden anger that Helena has stored up against her parents for keeping her in the circus when she'd really rather be doing other things.  In AH's behavior we see all the things Helena wishes she could say -- the things that made her absentmindedly wish her mother was dead at the beginning of the film.  As a result, we get to follow more with AH in her plans, all while Helena slowly realizes the darkness in her own heart.

This would also have the impact on the dark queen.  She should be shown as an emotionally weak, desperate woman, trying waaaay too hard to keep AH in check.  Her actions should be over-exaggerations of what Helena sees in her real mother -- instead of being a real person, she's a manifestation of Helena's dislikes.  Given that all we see of Joanne is a friendly and mildly flawed woman, it should be pretty obvious that Helena is making her mother into something she isn't.  That way the mirror mask represents vision, and how the fact that it's missing means that Helena isn't seeing her mother as she is, but through teen-angst-colored lenses.

In my idealized version of the movie, Valentine isn't there, but he would work just fine if he were allowed to be a teenager.  It would also have been really cute if it were all a collective dream, and Helena had to escape to his dream world to defeat anti-Helena.  Dunno, just havin' fun.

2.  Some short things worth mentioning.

Like I said, Stephanie Leonidas does a lot to carry this film.  Had someone else been cast, this thing would have been an utter mess.  It's like Interstella 5555 or Hollow Fields; if the emotional believability of a story is strong, then technical believability can be cut some slack.  Leonidas does well, and I hope she gets cast in good things in the future.  While I'm at it, most of the acting is good.  Besides Valentine and, at certain moments, the Prime Minister, the acting was spot on and believable. 

Helena's drawings are good.  I wish they'd been used more, but for what it is, they're lovely.

Joanne's circus outfit is appalling.  I imagine it's pretty distracting for the audience when they can see under her skirt as she's performing.  The color of her tights makes it look like there's nothing underneath, too.   And while we're at it, Stephanie really needed a bra.

I'm not quite sure the whole circus thing was the best for Helena's story.  It's a nice visual addition, but it seems weird that someone from the circus would feel so disenfranchised as a teen.   Teen angst comes from insecurity, but circus-like atmospheres tend to make a family of the bunch, as well as removing the teen from other teens and preventing her from comparing their lives.  Well, it's not impossible that a teen would feel this way, even in a circus, it's just so odd that Helena is so good at working the circus and somehow hates it.  Juggling even puts her in her right mind after she's been drugged by the dark queen.  Not a big deal, but it's just weird.

I wish there was more of the Really Useful Book.  It was very cute, despite being a bit deus ex machina.

The way Valentine reacts to some of Helena's lines feels off-putting and weird.  He doesn't take notice when Helena ends conversations suddenly or when she jokes that she doesn't need him.  You'd think he would.  Also, at the point where Helena is saying, "I couldn't have done it without you" is really forced.  She's supposed to be having an emotional connection with Valentine, but at this point he hasn't been useful since he mentioned how to use library books to escape the sphinx.  Any emotional connection is purely artificial.

They really shouldn't have bothered to make the charm a mystery.  Nobody wonders what it is when it's the movie's title.  Also, are the sphinxes normally in the light kingdom?  Any reason why there are so many, despite being supposedly dangerous?  What do they do when the light kingdom isn't in danger?

They really shouldn't have bothered to make the charm a mystery.  Nobody wonders what it is when it's the movie's title.  Also, are the sphinxes normally in the light kingdom?  Any reason why there are so many, despite being supposedly dangerous?  What do they do when the light kingdom isn't in danger?

Why does the mask saleslady only insist that Helena wash her hands?  Why shouldn't Valentine wash his?

The librarian says that the top floor is paperbacks, but there's an awful lot of hardbacks there.  I do love the History of Everything segment, despite paper not having light and dark sides.  It's a great mythology, and from this point Helena really should have emphasized her power.

I was going to go over the scene with the giants, but this review is long enough.  Shortly put, the sphinx at the beginning weakened all appearances of the sphinxes, the giants came out of nowhere, Valentine contradicted himself by stating they should be polite and then finishing the giant's sentences for them, and it's awfully convenient that the giants have the key they need.  How did it get there?  Who knows?  Just enjoy the visuals of a stone couple being brutally torn apart and don't question a thing.

The scene where Helena is changing clothes to a trite pop song is horrendous.  Why that song?  Its cheese level is through the roof.  That, and it's a love song, so it's really disturbing that it's being played as a part of a mother/daughter relationship thing.  Unless they were going for the whole gay incestual thing for the creep factor.

Y'know, when I first watched this movie, I thought Valentine had "betrayed" Helena on purpose -- not simply as a cliched character arc for a guy greedy for money, but rather as a good guy with a plan.  By giving Helena to the dark queen, Valentine enabled her to gain intel on what was going on in the dark kingdom, as well as buy himself time to try all of the locks on the lock pillar.  Heck, if he hadn't, they wouldn't have been able to get the mirror mask.  I wish they'd played it up that way.  Would've been clever.

Why doesn't Helena tell the duckupine that she's just going out for a walk or something?  Running right by him without even trying to give an alibi is just nonsense, especially since she knows how possessive the dark queen is.  And why is the dark queen so eager to have at her side someone she really should know isn't her daughter?

There's no need to hide Valentine's face at the end.  We all recognize his voice by this point, and he's the most obvious character who would appear in Helena's life in this scene.

On a second viewing, the movie felt a lot stronger.  When a person is wide-eyed and fresh, they notice flaws more.  But once a first viewing is out of the way and the audience already knows all the weaknesses already, they suddenly become less important.  The viewer can have fun just watching a cheesy 90s movie that was made 5 years after that decade ended.  It's kind of amazing, really.  What other movie you've seen so firmly places itself in the wrong decade?

1. The ultimate fate of this movie is the reviews given to its book form.

I said this story would be better as a novel than a movie.  I stand by that, even though the book wasn't well received.  For some reason, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, the writers, decided that the book version of this should be for kids.  That's the exact wrong thing.  The protagonist is a teen, and her conflict is teen, so this novel shouldn't be anything less than a 50,000 word work with rich detail and extended plot.  I mean, heck, everything is there.  The characters, the themes, the world -- all this story needed was a calm, patient treatment and it could have outshone the film easily.

Instead, we get reviews like this:

"The artwork was good and the concept is great - but to read it without having seen the movie will leave the reader a bit perplexed."
- Ravenskya

"I think I did myself a disservice by listening to this story on audiobook instead of checking out the actual illustrated book or viewing the movie. I have a sneaking suspicion the illustrations enhance much of the story, which felt a bit bare bones without them, and that I've missed out on the full experience...there simply wasn't enough character development for my liking and something happens that is glossed over and forgiven instantaneously that weakens Helena as a character in my eyes."
- Barks Book Nonsense

"It's been a few weeks since I listened to MirrorMask, and while I enjoyed it, the book felt like it was a testrun for 'Coraline,' in which the themes are repeated, but fleshed out further."
- Nemo 

In other words, it's a nice try, but not quite there.  It's visually dependent, and scattered in storytelling.  Does that mean people shouldn't like it?  No.  People can like what they like, and this movie is harmless.  

It does bring me to a psychological difference between viewers.  There are two types of viewers: people who side on execution, and people who side with concept.  This movie is bound to appeal to conceptual viewers, those who can look past the executional flaws and enjoy it for what the filmmakers were going for, even if they didn't entirely reach it.

The thing, above all else (besides maybe poor budget), that weakens this movie is its comparison to Jim Henson's fantasies.  Some blame critics for the comparison, but it wasn't critics who added in old fantasy nostalgia, chose Jim Henson's company to produce it, or packaged it in a three-set with The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.  If this film had been allowed to be a teen fantasy film with no attempt made to recreate the stories of the past, many of its flaws would never have happened.  It could be something good, all on its own and free from stereotypes.  

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