So many people loved this movie, yet there are a few of us IMDb reviewers who found Mirrormask excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch and arse-clenchingly boring. I fall into the latter of these two camps, and I will try to explain what it was that made my toenails curl so unpleasantly.
Firstly, to set the record straight - I like Neil Gaiman's books. I sometimes find his knowing, sarcastic, 'wry asides' humour a little geeky, and I actually prefer his work when he is playing it straight and leaving the jokes alone - but, even with his occasional lapses into crap 'dad' gags, I find his creativity and imagination to be something a bit special.
Interestingly, one of Gaiman's strongest works is Coraline, a Gothic fairy story for kids that is very low on jokes and high on tension and creepiness. His latest novel (Anansi Boys) overdoes the funnies, and tends to read at times like Terry Pratchett does the Sisters of Mercy (not the nuns but the band). Mirrormask inhabits similar territory to Coraline, and when I saw the stunning visuals in the trailer, I got a bit excited that somebody had managed to transfer Gaiman's spectacular vision and imagination to the screen.
In praise of the film, some sequences do look stunning. However, the visual effects are occasionally ruined by CGI animation that looks like a Media Studies student project. Backgrounds and scenery are often incredible, but some of the character animation looks clumsy, amateur and cheap. In an early dream sequence, the spider is animated beautifully, but the book-eating cat-beast looks poorly rendered and very 'computer generated'. Compared with the standard of animation found in productions such as 'The Corpse Bride', Mirrormask occasionally looks very amateur indeed. However, in Mirrormask's defence, the budget was tiny for such a grand vision, and a few creaks in the effects can be understood and forgiven.
What cannot be forgiven is the stilted, stagy, cringeworthy and pretentious dialogue. The actors struggle desperately with the dialogue - and there is so much of it that they are constantly hampered and stumbling over it. Conversation is rendered completely unnatural, the jokes fall flat time and time again, and the turgid speeches appear to be the writer's only method of plot exposition. Combined with the fact that the actors are working against a blue screen (which always adds an element of 'Phantom Menace') - this renders the film almost unwatchable. In such an unreal setting the actors need to work twice as hard to be believed, and in the main they fail terribly. The girl who plays the lead role puts in a valiant struggle against the impossible stage-school dialogue, and occasionally shows real promise, but it is never enough. The god-awful cod-'Oirish' of the Valentine character (with whom she is forced to spend an inordinate amount of screen time) puts paid to any chance of this young actress rising above the material. It appears to be Valentine's job to explain the plot to younger viewers, and to add a bit of light relief. Personally, I wouldn't want him anywhere near my 15 year old daughter.
What else is wrong with this film? Answer....Rob Brydon. What's annoying (for us Brits, anyway) is we know Rob Brydon can act! We've seen him hold the screen for half-an-hour on his own (doing those 'Marion & Geoff' monologues), and in the first 'real world' bit of the film he is fine. However, stick him in front of a blue screen and he loses all sense of character and turns into the worst am-dram-ham I've seen in years. A real shame.
What else is wrong? Answer... the wanky slap-bassing, sub-Courtney Pine saxing and unlistenable, too-high-in-the-mix soundtrack that never shuts up. God, the music is incessant, loud, distracting, irrelevant and, if that isn't enough, has wanky slap bass wanking all over it. It makes the dialogue very hard to hear, but that could be a blessing in disguise.
What else is wrong with it? Answer.... The whistling mime artist. In modern society there should be no place for mime, apart from certain secret places in France. Every moment the camera lingers on the gurning, whistling, moss-juggling, yogurt-weaving idiot, I understand why the Edinburgh locals get a bit anxious and fractious when Festival time comes round again.
My final criticism is that the film is pretty dull. Surrealism often is dull it either requires its audience to slip into a dreamlike, Zen, accepting state, or for the audience be constantly wowed by bigger and grander surprises. A story with a bit of pace involving characters that we could believe in and care about would have gone a long way to giving this film the emotional centre that it sadly lacked, whilst stopping the eyelids from drooping.
Finally, apologies to all those who found depth, meaning and wonder in this film. You have managed to suspend your disbelief, you have seen past the creaky CGI, ignored the crappy dialogue and the abysmal performances that resulted, and understood the maker's grand, imaginative vision. I wanted to, but I couldn't see past the real-world failings that dragged it down.
I hope Neil Gaiman gets it right next time, if he gets (or even wants) the opportunity.