Phenomenally popular author Neil Gaiman ("American Gods," "Good Omens," "Sandman") teamed with illustrator and frequent collaborator Dave McKean to create MirrorMask (2005), a visually stunning and deeply entertaining fantasy concoction in the tradition of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. That it falls short of the magic and wonder of those two films is something of a disappointment, but just a small one. While Gaiman is hardly at the top of his game here those familiar with the writer's work will find this to be Gaiman Lite, full of the author's standard tropes but simplified for a more general audience McKean takes the same uniquely beautiful, creepy, and tactile sensibility that he brought to his work as an illustrator and steers it in a gloriously kinetic new direction. The story concerns Helena (gorgeous, enchanting Stephanie Leonidas), a 15-year-old girl whose family runs a small circus. Like all adolescents, she longs for a life different from her own surrounded as she is by jugglers, clowns, and fire-eaters, Helena longs to run away from the circus to the real world. "You couldn't handle the real world," says her mother (Gina McKee) during a heated argument, just before falling ill to a mysterious disease. Frustrated and blaming herself for her mother's illness, Helena a talented artist whose bedroom wall is decorated with the designs of a fantasy alternate universe becomes entangled in a maybe-a-dream adventure in that world. Surrounded by a frankly surreal landscape as she encounters man-faced cats, flying fish, and a frightening Dark Queen-slash-Mommy figure (also McKee), she's aided by a charming masked stranger named Valentine (Jason Barry) as she attempts to save this strange place from destruction by her own dark alter-ego. McKean, whose work as an artist combines the most adept of computer gimmickry with the rich technique of a flawless craftsman, gets an impressive assist here from the folks at The Jim Henson Company, and the pure visual joy of the film saturates every frame it's a phantasmagorical Freudian exploration of the inside of a gothy teenaged girl's head, and dream logic is delightfully employed to create a world in which, literally, anything can happen. The plot is quite slim, which is only slightly disheartening in retrospect McKean as a first-time director brings a fresh way of looking at film to the table, with an unusual and completely satisfying sense of pacing and storytelling that offers delightfully new characters and a visual palette that's never before been seen on film. Add to that an amazing New Age-meets-Nino Rota score by Iain Bellamy that combines elements of circus music, tangos, and World Beat melodies to delirious effect, and MirrorMask is a magical, exhilarating movie that's unlike anything else.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's DVD release is, thankfully, everything for which one could hope. The sumptuous anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is rich, sharp, and just plain fabulous, even in the bleaker, more monochromatic segments. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (in English, Portuguese, and Thai with an optional French DD 2.0 track) is equally good, mixing dialogue, ambient sound and Bellamy's amazing score to brilliant effect. Extras include a dryly witty, understated commentary by Gaiman and McKean, a very nice "making of" menu section featuring interviews with the pair, discussion by the film's producers, interviews with cast and crew, behind-the-scenes footage of how some of the segments were created, and footage of a Q&A with Gaiman and McKean at San Diego ComicCon. Also on board are poster and cover art, as well as trailers for other Sony DVD releases. Keep-case.