Gaiman, author of The Sandman, "greatest epic in the history of comic books" (L.A. Times), points to the epic attempt to put The Sandman on screen as evidence of this Hollywood (uri)nation. Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who wrote Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek, were brought in by producer Jon Peters to write the Sandman movie, based on the award-winning and over 2,000-page comic masterpiece largely accepted as the piece de triumph of the graphic novel world. Says Gaiman: "Jon Peters explained to me that he explained to [Elliot and Rossio] that he had this theory. He told them, and me, that what a movie needed to be successful was a giant mechanical spider. And a giant mechanical spider would make any film a hit. That was his theory." Elliot and Rossio went in to pitch their idea for the film and told Peters there was no room for a giant automated arachnid in their film. But Peters insisted. "I was thrilled," Gaiman says without a hint of sarcasm, somehow making his statement even more sarcastic, "to go see Wild, Wild, West when Peters finally got in his giant mechanical spider. I really think a lot of these Hollywood execs are wedded to their giant spiders."
Don’t expect, then, any robotic bugs in MirrorMask, which Gaiman co-wrote with graphic illustrator Dave McKean. There are some CG one-eyed eight-legged creatures, but as with the film itself, describing them would be impossible. The Jim Henson Company contacted the two frequent collaborators and said they wanted something along the lines of what Henson Studios did with The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. What results is barely narratively describable and visually indescribable.
Helena, a 15-year-old circus performer longs to run off and join the real world. Her only respite from the carnival of her life is dark drawings of fantastic worlds and creatures. Her mother falls ill and on the night of her mother’s surgery, Helena dreams – or does she? – that she enters a world infested with her (that is, McKean’s) bizarre human-faced cat creatures, masked inhabitants and kings and queens borrowed from characters in her own life. Think of it as The Wizard of Odd.
While the film usually stays in its PG territory, brief peaks into PG-13 do occur that may scare children more than delight them – the Queen of Shadows spews tarry tentacles from her mouth to capture the terrified Helena. But kids won’t have a problem with it, says Gaiman, who opines that he’s never met any children that respond to stories without darkness.
"Children respond so well to that stuff. Children have a clear idea of good and evil, darkness and light, where an adult is much more morally equivocal." He says it’s hard to give an adult the original version of Snow White where the queen, in the end, is invited to the wedding and forced to dance in red hot iron shoes until she’s burned and her heart explodes. A child just shrugs, offers Gaiman, because "wicked people are punished and adults are at times cruel. It makes sense to them." These are stories that, Gaiman half-jokes, were there a kid equivalent of the FCC, who had the power to take these stories out of circulation, they would. "But thankfully they’ve been grandfathered in."
If one disagrees with Gaiman’s philosophy, he proposes a simple thesis-proving solution. "Think back to the cartoons you remember as a child. Most people barely remember the PBS cartoons where everyone loves everyone else, everyone is loved properly and all have a hug at the end. No. You remember the WB cartoons. The look on Wile E. Coyote’s face as he runs off the canyon and looks down to see he’s run out of road. We remember him being smashed by anvils and blown up by TNT. Dark is memorable."
MirrorMask opens at the Landmark Nuart Theatre Sept. 30.