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Film / MirrorMask

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A 2005 movie made by The Jim Henson Company, but done with mostly CG effects rather than the puppetry that the company is known for. Directed by acclaimed visual artist Dave McKean, and it shows. Written by acclaimed author/comic book guy Neil Gaiman, and it also shows.

Helena Campbell is a teenage girl who wants to leave her home at the circus to go and join real life. She gets into an argument with her mother, who then falls spontaneously ill with what is presumably a brain tumor. Helena blames herself, and dreams (maybe) that she travels to a magical world made entirely out of pictures she has drawn.

The City of Light is being gradually destroyed because the White Queen (who bears a suspicious resemblance to her mother) has fallen ill and the Charm to wake her has been stolen by someone called the Dark Princess, daughter of the Dark Queen (who also bears a suspicious resemblance to Helena's mother). Accompanied by a bizarre Irish juggler named Valentine, Helena journeys from the White City to the Darklands to find the Charm and save both the White Queen and her mother.

Deliberately made as a Spiritual Successor to Labyrinth, and like it, the film has gained a cult following, due largely to the massive fan bases of Gaiman and McKean.

By the way, the circus isn't scary, nor is the clown.

This movie provides examples of:

  • Action Dress Rip: Helena does this to the dress she acquired in her Evil Makeover after it makes her trip.
  • Abusive Parents: The Queen of Shadows saw her own daughter less like a child in need of a balanced childhood and more like a doll she could dress up and play with when it was most convenient for her. When the original Princess escaped into the real world, she enacts a destructive rampage across a defenseless City of Light (the White Queen left comatose by the imbalance this caused) to find her before finding Helena and deciding to use her as a replacement. Even when Helena explains to the Queen why her daughter left in the first place, she just shrugs, trying to kidnap her all over again.
  • All Just a Dream: Although we know this from pretty early on, and Helena first thinks that she simply has to survive the dream logic. But then she sees the Princess taking over her life... Or Was It a Dream?? The final scene implies that, while it was all a dream, it wasn't just a dream. (And with Neil Gaiman, it's never just a dream.)
  • All Take and No Give: The Dark Queen and the Princess, one of the most dysfunctional family units in fantasy.
  • Ambiguous Situation:
    • It's never confirmed what exactly makes Joanne sick, only that she needs an operation with her husband and daughter worried about her. Morris revealing that the doctors "got it all out" implies that it may have been cancer.
    • What becomes of the Princess after she's sent back. Although the novelization by Gaiman and McKean says that she and the Dark Queen give their relationship another try.
  • And You Were There: All of the main characters including Helena, although Valentine's equivalent is met after the dream.
  • Anti-Smother Love Talk: Toward the end of the film, Helena faces the Dark Queen, who has been ravaging the world in search for her daughter, whose escape from said world is causing it to collapse. Helena tries to convince the Queen to treat the princess like a human being instead of a kind of plaything, leading to a moment that teases a Heel Realization and then defies it:
    Helena: She's not a pet! She's not even a child any more! You have to let her grow up.
    Dark Queen: You mean... let her choose her own food, her own clothes, make her own decisions... love her, but don't try to possess her?
    Helena: Yes, that's exactly what I mean.
    Dark Queen: Absolutely out of the question.
  • Are You Pondering What I'm Pondering?:
    Helena: Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
    Valentine: Absolutely, if we put little wheels on the bottom of our feet we could just rooooooll around...
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
    Guard 1: Shall we lock her up for you?
    Guard 2: Extort a confession?
    Guard 3: Deny her ice cream?
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Helena wants to escape her circus life because she's tired of performing. It's revealed that the Princess switched places with her, thus giving Helena what she wanted. Helena is not pleased when she realizes.
  • Black Eyes of Evil: The Dark Queen sports pitch-black eyes, as does her daughter. When Helena is used as a replacement for the Princess and given an appropriate makeover, her eyes turn black as well.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick:
    Valentine: I remember what my mother always said. "It's a dog eat dog world, son. You get them before they get you. Eat your greens. Please don't do that. Don't embarrass me in front of the neighbors. I THINK IT WOULD BEST FOR ALL CONCERNED IF YOU LEFT HOME AND NEVER CAME BACK AGAIN!" She wasn't even my real mam, either. She bought me from a man...
  • Brick Joke: Valentine finds out that, in the real world, he's a waiter, and a terrible one. Such a fate makes him scream. When Helena encounters the real-world Valentine, he mentions wanting to join the circus and she jokes that he'd be a lousy waiter. They laugh, and then he goes Wait, What?.
  • Broken Record: Not broken, but the repeating last line of Mrs. Bagwell's record is also her own last advice in the scene: "Don't let them see you're afraid."
  • Buffy Speak: At being asked to sneak, Valentine says, "I will slip unnoticeable through the darkness like a dark, unnoticeable slippy thing." A notable example in that he doesn't hesitate at any point in the sentence. That's what he meant to say.
  • The Cameo: Stephen Fry, Lenny Henry, and Robert Llewellyn pop by briefly.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Valentine is almost physically incapable of saying outright that he's sorry.
    Valentine: If I was to say s-s-something apologetic... it would reflect my feelings in this matter.
  • Cats Are Mean: Sphinxes, technically, but they come across as feral cats that have no qualms about eating people. Thankfully, they prefer the taste of books.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Helena's ability to juggle. It endears her to Valentine when he's looking for a new partner, and he uses it to break the queen's brainwashing of her.
  • Circus Brat: Helena grew up in the circus that her parents run. She sometimes wishes that she could have a more normal childhood, but it does mean that she's learned some unusual skills that come in handy during her adventure.
  • Companion Cube: The Really Useful Book for Helena, and Valentine's Tower for Valentine.
  • Compressed Adaptation: Though written by Neil Gaiman simultaneously with the screenplay, the novelization of the story notably excludes the Monkeybird scene.
  • Cool Airship: Although it looks kind of like a giant vacuum cleaner.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Mrs. Bagwell for the sphinxes, who has about thirty of the little buggers living in her house with her and has given them stereotypical kitty names.
  • Dangerous Interrogative: A nervous servant approaches the Dark Queen at dinner to tell her Helena has escaped with the Mirrormask (and technically the second time it's happened). When the Queen growls "What?!", her voice goes VERY demonic, a prelude to her One-Winged Angel form.
  • A Darker Me: The Dark Princess is an embodiment of Helena's darker and more selfish tendencies. She's more confident and superficially cooler than Helena, but a lot more dangerous to the people around her.
  • Doppelmerger: This is Neil Gaiman's interpretation of the ending. Helena escapes Anti-Helena's attempt to destroy the imaginary world and puts on the Mirrormask, which yanks Anti-Helena into a window portal and merges them together, giving both what they want. The White Queen awakens in the imaginary world, Helena gets her mother back, and Anti-Helena is able to "run away and join real life."
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Helena successfully returns to her world despite the Princess tearing up her drawings, helping the White Queen wake up. In addition, her mother's surgery goes well and she ends up recovering.
  • Easily Forgiven: Almost the instant Valentine comes back and breaks the Dark Queen's hypnosis over the captive Helena, she forgives him for having betrayed her to the Dark Queen for jewels in the first place, despite the fact that he couldn't quite bring himself to apologize for it.
  • Forgotten Fallen Friend: Lampshaded and played for laughs. Valentine's friend Bing is devoured by the encroaching darkness while attempting to hold it at bay long enough for Helena and Valentine to escape, and Valentine almost immediately forgets about him, to the point that when Helena mentions him a few minutes later, Valentine's response is "Who?"
  • Fourth Wall Shut-In Story: Helena Campbell, a young circus performer and aspiring artist, is drawn into a mysterious world of masked people and monsters shortly after her mother is hospitalized. It is eventually revealed that the world she entered was created through her own drawings that she hung up on the walls of her room.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: There is always someone playing with crystal spheres, especially during the circus scene in the beginning, and after the title goes off-screen, the spheres are arranged in a triangular fashion just as Bowie had them during Sarah's dream sequence.
  • Gagging on Your Words: Valentine has a problem with "Sorry".
  • God in Human Form: Inverted. While the creation of Dreamland is heavily implied to be Helena's doing, she's ultimately a human girl with a big imagination.
  • Great Big Book of Everything: It's not especially big, but A Really Useful Book is full of plot-relevant advice that lives up to its title. A Complete History of Everything could also qualify.
  • The Heartless: The Dark Queen is a reflection of the way that Helena sees her mother when she's angry: selfish, uncaring, and pompous. By contrast, the Dark Princess is everything that Helena (implicitly) fears about becoming herself: spoiled, ungrateful, and greedy.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • A Really Useful Book. That's right, a book.
    • Earlier, Valentine's friend Bing is devoured by the encroaching darkness while attempting to hold it at bay long enough for Helena and Valentine to escape.
  • Hypnotize the Captive: The Dark Queen attempts to hypnotize a captured Helena into becoming a replacement for the Dark Princess.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    • Mrs. Bagwell tells Helena to go wash her hands, wittering on about hygiene. But when Helena goes to wash her hands in Mrs. Bagwell's bathroom... it's the most disgusting place ever. Everything's got grime on it, there's no soap, no towel for Helena to dry her hands on (she just uses her shirt), and there is a sphinx in the toilet.
    • In the beginning of the movie, Helena's reasoning for not being dressed for the circus is because she looks like an idiot. Her mother replies that "No one looks like an idiot." Cue a girl with a beaked mask, rainbow skirt, and stockings coming from behind. The mother tells her to leave.
  • Improbable Weapon User: Valentine's friend Bing throwing his juggling balls at an encroaching shadow.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Helena's desire to run away from the circus and join real life.
  • "I Know You're in There Somewhere" Fight: After Helena has been brainwashed by the Dark Queen, Valentine appears and insists that she's still in there. It doesn't work, but juggling does.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: "I did not hog those cakes!"
  • I Wished You Were Dead: A major plot point; Helena cries when her mother ends up hospitalized, believing that It's All My Fault because she'd earlier wished her dead while arguing. Most of her quest in the dream world is trying to save the White Queen, who strongly resembles her mother.
  • "Knock Knock" Joke: When Valentine is being menaced by a ravenous griffin, he offers to teach it the best knock-knock joke in the world— "You start."
    Griffin: Knock knock.
    Valentine: Who's there?
    Griffin: ...
    [Valentine escapes]
  • Look Behind You: Valentine tries to talk his way past a guard, but is defeated by the guard's tendency toward Comically Missing the Point. Eventually, he resorts to pointing behind the guard, shouting "Look, an idiot!", and running while the guard's distracted.
  • Magical Library: Where books fly around and have to be caught with a net.
  • Marionette Motion: The boxed singer marionettes.
  • Mask of Power: The MirrorMask. The people of the dreamworld believe that it created the world, and it certainly has the power to let one escape that world.
  • McGuffin: The MirrorMask itself is the Charm needed to save The City of Light from the shadows. It is the subject of Helena's quest.
  • Mind Screw: This movie's definitely got it, as well as much confusion as to whether or not this was an art film.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: Quite a few, most notably the Griffon, the Sphinxes, and the Monkeybirds.
  • My Beloved Smother: The Dark Queen, in a subversion of the usual tradition that evil queens are cruel, unloving parents, is entirely too involved in the Dark Princess's life because of her overprotective love. To balance that out, we have Valentine's Parental Abandonment.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Valentine after reading The Dark Princess's note, which she left in the MirrorMask's hiding hole. He quickly realizes that the world is going to end, and Helena's the only one who can stop it.
  • Non-Ironic Clown: Helena's family's circus features several clowns, who are friendly and likable both in and out of makeup.
  • Odd Name Out: All the Monkeybirds are named Bob. Except Malcolm.
  • Off-the-Shelf FX: Part of the set in one scene is a supersized version of a digital model of a flea that the animators had kicking around.
  • Ominous Obsidian Ooze: The Dark Queen has the power to create strange liquid shadows by literally vomiting them into existence: first encountered oozing along walls and floors like oil, they can also sprout tentacles or even shape themselves into birds in order to ensnare their victims— which are fatally petrified unless the Queen's taken an interest. They can even be used as part of a One-Winged Angel transformation.
  • Our Sphinxes Are Different: Gryphons and sphinxes are similar catlike creatures with human heads, but have their properties mixed up. A gryphon guards the area known as Giants Orbiting, requiring that Helena answer the classic Riddle (she succeeds by giving a literal answer) and stump him in return (she gives him something unsolvable and sneaks off while he's thinking about it). Meanwhile, the "sphinxes" are ravenous beasts which speak seldom and pounce on anyone who seems vulnerable.
  • Parental Abandonment: Valentine briefly mentions that his mother abandoned him, although "She wasn't really me mother, anyway. She bought me from a man..." We never learn what became of his real parents.
  • Planet of Steves: Subverted: There is one Monkeybird whose name isn't Bob. It's Malcolm. And they hit him for it.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: The Giants always talk like this. Although it's more like Punctuated... For... Emphasis...
  • "Reading Is Cool" Aesop: Courtesy of "A Really Useful Book".
    Helena: I like books!
  • Rebellious Princess: The Dark Princess rebels against the smothering role that her mother forces her into by running away into another world and acting like a stereotypical punk. Whatever sympathy the audience might have for her is balanced by the extreme measures that she's willing to take to avoid being taken back.
  • Repeated Cue, Tardy Response: When Joanne must run off-screen, change into a gorilla costume, and come back on as a different character, she unfortunately has a sudden migraine and passes out, forcing another crew member to take her place. The delay results in oblivious Morris repeating her cue (mention of bananas) with increasing pointlessness until the replacement appears.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Deconstructed. When the Dark Queen realizes that her daughter is missing, Valentine rats out Helena's location for the award. Helena bluntly tells the Dark Queen that she's not the princess, and the Queen admits that she knows. She's satisfied with a doppelganger, however, who is less likely to rebel. Helena has to be brainwashed to play along.
  • Riddling Sphinx: Subverted. The classic Riddle of the Sphinx is delivered by an easily stumped griffin. There are sphinxes in the city, but they're implied to be less intelligent and more interested in eating books (and people) than solving riddles.
  • Save Both Worlds: Emotionally, at least. The waking world isn't threatened with physical destruction as the dreamworld is, but by saving the dreamworld, Helena also saves her mother's life, symbolically at the very least, and stops "her world" from being shattered.
  • Scenery Porn: At 24 frames per second, the movie has roughly 120,000 scenery porn moments. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to live inside a Dave McKean drawing...
  • The Scream and Screw Destiny: "That's not my future. That's not my future. NO, I DON'T WANT TO BE A WAITER!"
  • Shout-Out:
  • The Show Must Go On: After Helena's mother passes out, another performer takes her place.
  • Significant Double Casting: Helena and her parents have doppelgangers within the dream world; to wit, the Princess, the Prime Minister, and the Light and Dark Queens.
  • Skewed Priorities: The Dark Queen would rather keep Helena captive and let the dream world be destroyed than think of The Needs of the Many.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Also Lyrical Dissonance— "Close To You" is sung in a creepy, unnatural way by uncanny puppets, which fits the terrifying tone of the scene.
  • Stealth Pun: Inside Helena's riddle. You can paint a herring green, you can hang it on a wall, but the whistling? That keeps it from being too obvious. It's a red herring.
  • Strawman Political: The Dark Queen's advisers are parodies of British politicians on both sides.
  • Talking in Your Dreams: At one point in her journey, Helena meets her mother, who says that from her point of view she's asleep in her hospital bed having a dream in which she's just met Helena. Like everything else about the dreamworld, it's never solidly established whether that actually happened.
  • Teens Are Monsters: Putting aside that she switched lives with Helena against Helena's will, the Dark Princess is a bitch. She's basically a reflection of everything wrong with Helena with none of her good traits.
  • The Tell: When Helena's father is trying to calm her about her mother's impending brain surgery, and unconsciously chews his lip, she blurts, "Anyway, you're worried. You only do that when you're worried!"
  • This Is Gonna Suck: Malcolm the Monkeybird's reaction to the approaching darkness.
    Malcolm: Regrettable.
  • Uniformity Exception: There are a tribe of "monkeybirds", basically gibbons with conical orange beaks, who can only speak their own name. All of them are named Bob, except for one, Malcolm, who has a blue beak and is more helpful to Helena than the rest.
  • Unkempt Beauty: Helena has very greasy hair.
  • Voiceover Letter: Left by the Dark Princess and read by Valentine.
  • Who's on First?: Valentine asks the griffin a riddle that it can't figure out the answer to. When Valentine tells it the answer, it repeatedly fails to grasp that "It's 'A Secret'" is the answer and not Valentine being evasive.
  • Winged Humanoid: The Monkeybirds, although they don't really have bird-like wings; they actually have skin-flaps that stretch from their arms to the sides of their bodies, and they don't really fly with them, just glide really well.


Video Example(s):


The Dreamlands

Helena and Valentine find themselves in the Dreamlands between the City of Light and the Land of Shadow, a border region even weirder than the rest of the setting: described as "wishes, hopes and memories," the place seems to respond to the thoughts of the visitors, hence why things are a bit... abstract.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

Example of:

Main / RealityIsOutToLunch

Media sources: