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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » MirrorMask (Blu-ray)
MirrorMask (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures // PG // November 18, 2008 // Region Free
List Price: $28.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 11, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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Most kids
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want to run away and join the circus; Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), on the other hand, is desperate to leave the big top behind. This young girl is far more interested in indulging her passion for art than juggling bananas and bowling pins in her family's struggling circus. Helena craves a real life, and it's kind of ironic that when she gets her first true taste of reality -- her mother (Gina McKee) falling deathly ill and her father's circus dreams crumbling around him -- that she retreats deeper into fantasy. Helena soon finds herself immersed in a dreamworld rooted around her strange, twistedly beautiful artwork.

The Kingdom of Light is in its death throes, slowly engulfed by the dark magics of the Queen of Shadows (McKee). Only the Queen of Light (McKee again) has the power to fend off her sorcery and restore the kingdom to its former glory, but she's trapped in a coma, and only a stolen charm can awake her once again. The tricky part...? No one has the slightest idea where the charm is, how to find it, or even what it is. It's like seeking out something even smaller than a needle, says the Prime Minister (Rob Brydon), and there's no sign which field its haystack is even in.

Helena doesn't fret about it, though; it's her dream, after all, and she has her newfound manager Valentine (Jason Barry) to help her along the way. Helena encounters a steady stream of bizarre creatures -- gorillas with pigeon heads bounding through an oversized jungle gym, talking shoes, rainbow-winged cats wolfing down stacks of books, orbiting stone giants, a griffin that's awfully lousy at trivia, and clock-like automatons belting out "Close to You" in synthetic harmony -- but they aren't nearly as much a threat as the dark version of
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herself she keeps spotting in windows throughout the kingdom...

MirrorMask at its core is a childhood bedtime story...a wide-eyed fantasy about one girl's quest in a world cleanly divided into good and evil. Writer Neil Gaiman (Stardust; Sandman) seems content keeping the plot and characterization fairly simplistic, giving his longtime friend and collaborator Dave McKean a chance to fully indulge his astonishingly imaginative visual eye.

MirrorMask is defined by its dazzling visual style, and reactions are sure to vary wildly depending on how willing viewers are to be swept away by it. The character designs are sharp, skewed, and exaggeratedly angular, like thumbing through a set of liner notes in a Residents album. Most of its creatures aren't clean CG models but collages pieced together from a slew of jarringly different sources. This mesh of live-action characters, computer graphics, paint and pencil, as well as these almost two-dimensional collages is entrancing. The skeleton of its story may sound familiar -- setting a plucky young tyke on a quest in some sort of bizarre fantasy world isn't exactly untread cinematic territory -- but MirrorMask's densely layered, intricate, and breathtaking visuals makes this feel like an entirely unique experience.

MirrorMask does prefer a slower, more dreamlike pace, and the skeleton of its story as well as its characters are rather lightly sketched. The more I think about MirrorMask, though, the more I look at it as an experience than a movie in the usual sense. There are other fantasies I'd reach for first, admittedly -- The Fall and Labyrinth instantly spring to mind -- but I still found myself fascinated by MirrorMask, and the astonishing visual ambition and boundless imagination on display throughout make it especially worth discovering on Blu-ray. Recommended.

Video: MirrorMask's intensely
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stylized visuals are particularly gorgeous on Blu-ray. Dave McKean's designs are teeming with tiny, intricate details that'd be reduced to a muddy smear on DVD, and the definition and clarity offered here in this Blu-ray disc can be truly spectacular. This isn't traditional high definition eye candy, though. MirrorMask deliberately looks as if it had been painted rather than filmed, and the dreamlike photography that makes up the bulk of the movie is soft and diffused.

MirrorMask makes an especially inventive use of color -- much more than is reflected in the screenshots scattered throughout this review -- that's closely keyed to the tone of each setting. The fantasy sequences are frequently tinted to the point of looking almost like tarnished brass, and although many of its colors are subdued, a plainer backdrop means that its vividly saturated hues carry that much more of an impact. The image retains its faintly grainy texture, and black levels are consistently deep and robust.

MirrorMask is lightly letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and this stunning Blu-ray disc has been encoded with AVC.

Audio: MirrorMask's 16-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is as nimble and playful as the movie itself. The spry instrumentation bounds back and forth between different channels, and skittering spiders, the flitter of books in flight, hundreds of ticking clocks, a disorienting flash-forward to a life that might've been, and even a stone skipping across an oversized pond are just a few of the effects that breeze through the surrounds. Its low-end is thick and meaty as well, and the enormous scale of some stretches of this fantasy -- colossal rocky statues tumbling to the ground and an entire world ripped apart -- rattle the room. The film's dialogue is consistently clean and clear throughout as well. Ths is a wonderful lossless soundtrack and a strong complement for MirrorMask's dazzling visuals.

Dolby TrueHD soundtracks are also included in French and Portuguese alongside traditional Dolby Digital tracks in Spanish and Thai. The long list of subtitles includes streams in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Indonesian, Dutch, and Korean.

Extras: For its nearly hour long set of featurettes, MirrorMask veers away from the technical bent of most DVD and Blu-ray extras in favor of something much more conversational.
  • Neil Talks... (6 min.): Writer Neil
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    Gaiman touches on a handful of his collaborations with Dave McKean on the printed page over the years, including Violent Cases, Signal to Noise, and Mr. Punch.

  • Dave Talks About the Film (6 min.): Director and designer Dave McKean gets his own interview as well, delving into the the continually-expanded team he's worked with since filming his first two shorts, the inspiration he drew from horror movies from the silent era, and his determination to give MirrorMask more of a hand-crafted look. Because of the short length of this interview, McKean obviously speaks about the making of the movie in very general terms.

  • Beginnings (4 min.): MirrorMask's producers speak briefly about how the longevity of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal compelled The Jim Henson Company to produce another fantasy.

  • Cast and Crew (8 min.): A fairly diverse selection of talent on both sides of the camera speak about working with Dave McKean on his first feature-length film, MirrorMask's blend of the theatrical with its enormous, cinematic fantasy, and some of the specific challenges that different departments had to tackle throughout the shoot.

  • Day 16 (2 min.): The entirety of the sixteenth day of production on MirrorMask is covered in time lapse photography, following the cast and crew feverishly tearing through page after page on the bluescreen stage. This featurette also lobs out a steady stream of statistics, including the overwhelming number of visual effects and even a tally of just how many digital fish are tossed around throughout the movie.

  • Flight of the Monkey Birds (4 min.): This featurette opens with a table read and weaves together early animation tests and wirework from the bluescreen shoot.

  • Giants Development (2 min.): This montage of conceptual art, maquettes, storyboards, 3D models, and texture maps follow the evolution of MirrorMask's floating stone giants.

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  • Q&A (20 min.): By far the lengthiest of MirrorMask's video-based extras is a compilation of several Q&A sessions with Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman. The two of them field questions such as how long it took to complete the film, how the studio reacted when the movie first finished unspooling, Gaiman and McKean's collaboration on the story in Jim Henson's oddball study, resisting the temptation to compartmentalize the roles of MirrorMask's CG team, their favorite pieces of each other's work, and even how Gaiman landed a gig writing the English dub for Princess Mononoke.

  • Audio Commentary: McKean and Gaiman's sharp wit and endless charm also make for a wonderful audio commentary. The two longtime friends and collaborators don't have any trouble keeping a steady flow of conversation going for a hundred minutes straight, and among the topics they tackle are the eccentricities of the CG rendering software filtering into MirrorMask's visual aesthetic, McKean's motion capture cameo, the movie's very deliberate use of color, a number of clever ideas that either didn't translate all that well to film or had to be lost for one reason or another, and the dramatically different cutoff point that McKean was mulling over for a few weeks there.

  • Trailers (HD): The only high definition extras here are trailers for other fantasies on Blu-ray. A trailer for MirrorMask itself has not been included.
Conclusion: While its slower, more dreamlike pace may not appeal to all tastes, I was too entranced by MirrorMask's dazzlingly imaginative visual style to notice. There admittedly isn't any real sense of urgency driving its story, but MirrorMask is a bedtime fantasy -- a bizarre, lucid dream -- and that emphasis on its hypnotic visuals above all else suits it well enough. I wouldn't put MirrorMask in quite the same league as The Fall or even Labyrinth, but MirrorMask sparks a similar wide-eyed sense of awe and wonder, and fans of either of those films ought to find this worth discovering on Blu-ray. Recommended.
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