Written by Neil Gaiman, based on a story by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
Directed by Dave McKean
Music Composed by Iain Ballamy
Starring Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Gina McKee, Rob Brydon, Dora Bryan
My Advice: Don't miss it.
Helena (Leonidas) is a girl with a dilemma. Whereas some kids dream of living in a fantasy circus world, Helena gets it day-in, day-out...and she's bored to death with it. Of course, her mother and father (McKee and Brydon) do run a circus that's basically what would happen if Dave McKean designed a Cirque du Soleil show, so I'm sure just the constant visual stimulation would wear anybody's ass out eventually. But when her mother falls ill, Helena finds herself in a place that's pure, mainlined McKean, which is like Dali illustrating Alice in Wonderland. Helena has to figure out where she is and why she's there before the land she's arrived in is consumed by the darkness and destroyed.
This film is probably the smartest decision that's been made by a company since Disney took a really bad idea ("Let's adapt The Lion King for Broadway! As a musical!") and spun it right by bringing in an artist with an unorthodox vision (Julie "Holy crap, am I seeing this?" Taymor). Henson, deciding that their previous fantasy works, namely Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, seemed to keep racking up sales on DVD, wanted to, as Brother Dave said, "do that again." And these days, Henson isn't exactly on our list of companies to trust, if you know what I mean. But when they decided to nab Gaiman and McKean to create this new world, again, everything seemed to look bright for the end result. I would go so far to say that there wasn't a doubt in my mind that the film would be incredible. And I was proved correct.
Gaiman has setup a story that's pretty much standard fantasy, but about as standard as anything Gaiman touches usually is. Like Coraline, in which he gave us a bored young female protagonist who longs for adventure, here he simply spins that notion on its head. She has adventure, she just wants normality. Whereas Coraline found herself with more entertainment than she bargained for, Helena finds herself in a place that makes her previous life look normal. Here, gryphons stalk the streets looking for books to gnaw on, those selfsame books must be caught by butterfly nets, and fish swim through the air almost everywhere you look. While the story has its own standout bits as far as the plot goes, it almost feels as though Gaiman was holding back a little, knowing that the elements that the plot called for would be enough for the audience to digest without throwing a bunch of (what would be) unnecessary twists and turns in. Seriously, it's twisty and turny aplenty as it stands: for instance, there have been transformation sequences before in film, but never performed by clockwork automatons singing what has to be the most fucked up use of a song since "Mr. Sandman" closed out the original Halloween. The dialogue is typical Gaiman as well: which is to say it's smart and crisp and distinctive. I'll never forget watching the Princess Mononoke trailer at San Diego the year of its release and hearing Minnie Driver speak the line, "Now watch closely, everyone. I'm going to show you how to kill a god." And I thought, "Oh yeah, that's Neil all right." Same thing with this film. Gaiman lays the groundwork and then McKean...well, does what McKean does: he brings it to visual life and then blows you away with it.
If any huge complaint could be made about the film, it's that it isn't a stationary work of art. There's so much to see and take in and experience that, while it must be seen on the big screen, it demands the DVD treatment so you can pause and marvel at your own pace. You're at no times completely overwhelmed though, which is amazing as I sit here and type this and look back. Everything is so perfectly balanced with its weirdness that you never step back and go, "Okay, whoa, time the fuck out, please."
Much credit must be given to the cast as well. Leonidas carries the film even amidst all the insanity, because she stays normal even when all around here is...well, in a word, McKean. She's as down to earth as you can imagine a girl in that situation being: "Oh, well, hmmm...I'm in a crystal meth Wonderland...what am I supposed to do then? Really? Oh, well, let's get to it, I guess." Pitch perfect. Jason Barry's Valentine is also a nice comic ally and foil and gets high marks for being able to act with that mask on his face. I'm sure he had some visibility, but speaking as a actor, it's extremely challenging to act while missing part of your face. Everything from his mouth up is pretty much obscured, and yet there's never a moment where you lose what he's about. McKee and Brydon do an excellent job of setting up an important relationship between the three family members in...what, two minutes?...before the story really begins, and the rest of the film is based around that and needs it in order to work. Which, of course, it does. Also delivering some great cameos are Stephen Fry, Lenny Henry and Robert Llewellyn.
I must also say something about Iain Ballamy's score for the film. It's so perfectly aligned with Gaiman and McKean's work that at first I thought it was McKean's handiwork. I would certainly hope Ballamy would consider this a compliment, because I've been incredibly impressed with McKean's musical prowess since Warning: Contains Language. But everything, from the circus themes to a pop-up band that involves tiny rabbits, just fits in a way that few scores manage to. And it's the kind of score that you want to pick up--I have, and I'm listening to it right now. It's worth grabbing for the closing credits song alone, Josefine Cronholm performing the Gaiman/McKean-scribed "If I Apologised."
Flat out, this is the best thing the Henson Company has done since...well, they haven't done anything really good in a while, frankly. It's been a long time since they've put out something that I felt Jim could have sat back and truly, completely enjoyed. But this is certainly something that fits, I think. For God's sake, see it in the cinema and let's hope Gaiman and McKean do something else along these lines soon. For now, I'll be happy for a DVD release. It just better be a good one. Or there'll be bloodshed.