Wednesday, April 8, 2009

MirrorMask: A Jim Henson Fantasy

Most of you are probably aware of the two fantasy films Jim Henson produced in the 1980's, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, but many of you may not know there is a third Henson fantasy film, MirrorMask, released some fifteen years after his death.

MirrorMask is the dream-quest of Helena, a young girl who lives and works with a family circus until her mother falls gravely ill. Originally conceived as a sequel to The Labyrinth, MirrorMask is Helena's coming-of-age story. Although it has many of the same story elements of Labyrinth, MirrorMask uses them in much more subtle, but yet much more powerful ways. It's the story of Helena growing up: what she wants to keep of her life as a girl, what she wants for the future, what she wants from boys, and most importantly, her relationship with her mother. It even explores the relationship between artists and their creations.

Toward the end of his life, Jim Henson realized he had taken physical puppetry about as far as it could go and began experimenting with the then, new field of computer generated imagery. After his death, his children Brian, Lisa, Cheryl, John and Heather continued taking the company in that direction.

Although there are some physical effects in MirrorMask, they realize most of the film using CGI. Unlike most studios who use CGI just as an effect, The Hensons use CGI as an art in itself, just as their father used puppetry, and like their father's work, MirrorMask is a stunning and unforgettable visual experience.

Henson was most proud of how he used the work of a single designer (English artist, Brian Froud) in The Dark Crystal. For MirrorMask, his children chose to go the same route by using English artist Dave McKean. Like Froud's work in The Dark Crystal, McKean's art fills the entire universe of MirrorMask, sets, costumes, backgrounds and character design.

McKean's designs are quite different from Froud's. His work is more psychological and iconic and abstract. McKean's work is strongly reminiscent of Tim Burton and Edward Gorey, and like Burton and Gorey, most of his work begins as a pen or pencil sketch.

Since neither The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth did very well during their studio release and made most of their returns in VHS and DVD sales, the studio decided to have a limited theatrical run for MirrorMask and focus their efforts on selling the film in the secondary market. The plan soon fell apart though so the video release of MirrorMask received little, if any, advertising.

Because the marketing plan for MirrorMask collapsed, most of the people who might enjoy the film never heard of it, which is a shame since MirrorMask is every bit as good, if not better, than either The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth. You can still find the film on DVD though, and if you love fantasy films like I do, then I really, really recommend it.

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