Lewis Carroll told his first Alice story to amuse the young daughter of the dean of Christ Church, Oxford, where he was studying mathematics. When he jotted down the extemporaneous tale later that evening, he called it "Alice's Adventures Underground." And that's exactly what this film by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean feels like—an underground or alternative version of the story that Carroll expanded to become Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Only instead of the Queen of Hearts, this fantasy world features a White Queen and Black Queen, and the young female who enters this strange place through a door and sees her old world through a drawing that serves as a looking-glass is a bit more hip than the Victorian-era Alice.
Still, it's impossible to watch "Mirrormask" without thinking of Carroll, or even of "The Wizard of Oz." Like Oz, with it's witch-minion flying monkeys, this one has monkeybirds and witch-directed slime that can take the form of tentacles, sprout into spiders, or take flight as "batacles." And as with L. Frank Baum's classic children's story, there are recognizable elements from "real life" which reappear in the surreal dream world. Black and white sock puppets are reflected in the Black and White Queens, while a pointy carrot-nose mask worn by a carnival performer looks like a dead-ringer for one of those monkeybirds, just as a spiral staircase reappears en masse to form a strange quasi-urban landscape, a puppet is mirrored by an adult version in the Mirrormask world, and the masks of the circus performers turn up everywhere. Even as the three farmhands and witchy neighbor turn up in Oz after Dorothy gets a bump on the noggin, the mother in "Mirrormask" reappears as the White and Black Queens, and the father turns up as the prime minister.
There's nary a mention of either story in Gaiman and McKean's commentary, in a making-of feature, or in any of the press conferences where they're shown answering questions about the film. The idea for the film, they say, evolved as a collaboration between the two men, who are best known for graphic fiction penned by Gaiman and illustrated by McKean. "Mirrormask" is their first collaborative full-length feature film, and it's based on a dream McKean had about a circus that was falling apart and a mother that was dying. Gaiman says there are also echoes of their "Mr. Punch" book—where puppets appear in a fantasia that's reflective of Gaiman's family background, a story dominated by a sense of isolation and disconnectedness. That's the genesis, the men say, and I believe them. But it also illustrates the power of cultural archetypes like "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz" to infiltrate our psyches and imaginations.
To be sure, "Mirrormask" feels as if something's infiltrated the world that unfolds before us. If the overall shape and feel of "Alice in Wonderland" was episodic and expansive, Gaiman and McKean's film has a creepily invasive feel to it. As with "Alice" and "Wizard," it's a frame story with reality segments serving as structural bookends to the volumes of dream-world adventures that occupy the middle. And if the fantasy-world look reminds you at all of "Labyrinth" or "Dark Crystal," it's because the executive producer says that Jim Henson Productions, who teamed with the graphic comics duo, looked at both films and were aiming to tap into what made them so popular with fans of the fantasy genre. In this, I think, they were pretty successful. The result is quite stylish, with the dream world made to look like McKean's paintings. In it, people are amazed not by wondrous things but by bizarre ones.
Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is a girl who already lives a life that most teens would consider offbeat. She juggles and does other odd things for a small circus run by her father (Rob Brydon), in which her mother (Gina McKee) also participates. All of the performers wear masks, and that, along with harsh angles and atmospheric lighting, create a real world that's already so off-kilter that it wouldn't take much to send it over the edge into pure fantasy. That's what happens when Helena's mother falls ill after an argument between the two and lies in a hospital bed waiting for surgery, as Helena and her father wait for news about whether she will live. She apparently has cancer, with surgery scheduled, and the out-of-control spread of cancer cells is suggested visually by the fluid black goop in the dream world that spreads out of control and turns people to stone—as it does in a threshold scene where Helena leaves her room in pajamas and finds herself in an alley with the performers as the goop attacks.
Helena makes it safely through a door with the juggler Valentine (Jason Barry), and as they navigate the surreal landscape they discover that a White Queen, like the girl's mother, lies dying. If she dies, the balance will be thrown off in the dream world, and the Black Queen will reign supreme. The only thing that can save the White Queen and this world is a charm called the Mirrormask, and so the girl and Valentine, like Dorothy and her friends in search of the Wizard, set off to find it, even as the Black Queen tries to stop them. It gets a bit more complicated than that when the girl looks through one of the drawings she's always making and taping to her bedroom walls and sees "herself" fighting with her father. It's the guilt, of course, from her argument with the mother, surfacing in her dream—but here it's literally an evil twin who's responsible. The Black Queen's daughter has run off, and for the moment the girls have switched worlds and places. The emphasis is on doubling, with two stone giants floating like balloons in a Macy's parade—an intertwined male and female—that remind us of the yin-yang symbol and the importance of balance.
The graphics backgrounds and CGI animation are quite well done, and such scenes as when a library of books flutters off like a batch of butterflies are as good as you'll see. Would-be filmmakers may find it inspiring to hear McKean say how "you can do anything with a Mac and some software that anybody in Hollywood is doing." The effects are mind-boggling. Asked how Sony reacted to the film, Gaiman smiled and said that one exec exclaimed, "That was like Jean Cocteau's 'Beauty and the Beast' . . . on acid . . . for kids."
Video: Mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.85:1 anmorphic widescreen, "Mirrormask" is a visual delight: sharp and vivid, even with a bleak or monochromatic palette.
Audio: Interestingly, the soundtrack options are English, Portuguese, and Thai Dolby Digital 5.1, and French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, which really has a bright treble that brings to life the carnivalesque score. Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai.
Extras: The writer (Gaiman) and director (McKean) commentary is pretty low-key and pretty standard, though fans of fantasy and the duo will certainly appreciate it. There's a better making-of feature that focuses on Gaiman for half the time and McKean for the other half, along with a compilation of edited responses to questions that the pair fielded at Sundance and at the San Diego Comic-Con. There's quite a bit of overlapping and more time spent on concept development than on actual production and problem-solving, but the bonus features are still worthwhile. Rounding out the extras is a poster and art gallery.
Bottom Line: Visually, and as an alternative "Alice in Wonderland/Wizard of Oz," "Mirrormask" is intriguing. But oddly enough, it lacks a strong narrative drive. For all the menace that the various permutations of goop present, there's never a sense of real peril or urgency—same with other creatures met along the way, like the sphinxes (cats with wings and human faces). Perhaps part of the reason for this is that Helena's emotional moments are confined to a few scenes, when during the rest of her journey through the dream world she's as cool and observant as a scientist. In the end, there's no doubt that good will triumph over evil, which means that any tension or surprise must come during the quest itself. Though "Mirrormask" is not without its surprises, they're not of the variety that has viewers on the edge of their seats. It's more a mindfest than an emotionfest, if that makes any sense.