Because downtown Pittsburgh is a place of madness and pain, we took the bus instead of driving. That actually worked quite well -- although the buses don't run very frequently on Sundays, there was one that got us there only 40 minutes before showtime and one that left just 20 minutes after the movie was over. andres_s_p_b and I explored the area for a while before the theater opened its doors. We found a building with an amazing pattern of filth on the side that made it hard to focus on. It looked like it was made of a cloud of soot, or fading away into grey mist. We also found a nifty spiral fountain and some benches shaped like eyeballs.
Eventually we wandered back to the theater, where we discovered the basement ("lower lobby"), furnished with comfy chairs, random tables, and many frustratingly locked doors with no obvious purpose. A, N, and D showed up in time to be lent cash for tickets (elderly theater -- no clever swipy things), and we wandered in to the little screening room for the show. While we were waiting, D and andres_s_p_b got into a discussion about pet rats (D wants some, but his roommate thinks they're gross), and a woman in the row behind us popped in with an "Actually, they make great pets," which was pleasant.
I liked it. I can kind of see why it only got a limited release -- it's much more a visual experience than it is a story. (Which of course means I can't do it any justice at all in text.) The story is pretty rudimentary, although well-told.
A girl, Helena, whose parents own a circus, is entering that difficult early puberty stage where life is awful and everything makes you angry. She's sick of the whole circus life and wants to settle down and be normal. She spends a lot of time drawing peculiar beasts and buildings.
During a show, her mother collapses and is rushed to the hospital. A lot of worrying follows, and things look bleak for Helena's mom and the circus. The night her mother is to be operated on, Helena hears a violin and goes outside to see if it's one of the circus people she knows. She find the violinist and two rehearsing jugglers, all in masks. The violinist and one juggler are promptly eaten by shadows, and Helena and the remaining juggler escape via a doorway into the city that Helena drew. This is where it gets really, really pretty and words stop being functional descriptors.
Helena and the juggler, Valentine, have various adventures in the city in the course of retrieving the charm that will wake the Light Queen (Helena's mum). Since the Light Queen has fallen asleep, the city's been under siege by the Dark Queen (also Helena's mum, but with gold face paint), who controls the shadows. Helena discovers that she can see her bedroom through some windows, and that there's someone in there who looks just like her. While Valentine and Helena roam the city tricking sphinxes, collecting magic keys from orbiting giants (promptly eaten by the shadows), and locating the tiny building full of locks that probably contains the Mirrormask, anti-Helena is fighting with Helena's dad and snogging perfectly awful boys. Eventually, anti-Helena realizes what they're up to and starts tearing down the pictures on the wall, destroying bits of the city. She also rips up the building that Helena and Valentine are in and pastes it back in the middle of the Dark Queen's forest.
Valentine turns Helena in to the Dark Queen for the reward, but then he feels guilty about it and goes back to the building of locks with the magic key. While he's trying keys, the Dark Queen explains that Helena is her daughter. Helena explains that she is not, and the Dark Queen says "You'll do." So the minions stick her in a goth outfit, complete with lipstick and heavy eyeshadow, and she goes around being the Dark Queen's daughter until Valentine comes back with the note he found once he opened the right lock, which is from the Dark Queen's actual daughter. She took the Mirrormask and ran away into the real world with it. Valentine and Helena locate the Mirrormask, run off to find a window from which to get back to Helena's bedroom, and fight the Dark Queen some. Anti-Helena manages to tear down all of the city drawings just before they make it to a window, but when she goes outside to throw the papers off the roof Helena gets her through the window she's previously sketched on the outside door.
And then Helena is back in the real world, her mom recovers just fine from the surgery, and Helena's much more cheerful about the whole circus thing.
So there's not anything unexpected or surprising about the plot. But it's really, really pretty.
1. We don't get to see what happens in the city at the end. Does it still exist? Does the Light Queen wake up? Do the drawings get taped back up?
2. Assuming it does still exist: So anti-Helena just gets sucked back into the world she hates with the mother she despises? How do you think that's going to work out for her, then?
3. The creatures called monkeybirds in the credits are clearly not monkeybirds. They are pigeon-gorillas. Monkeys have tails.
4. That bit where Valentine's flying tower comes and rescues them, but only after he apologizes? Not only a rather horrible deus ex machina, but a broadcast deus ex machina. Neither of the characters even looks worried while they're signaling for it to come rescue them from certain horrible death.
Things I particularly liked:
2. The big sphinx in Orbiting Giants, and all the riddles told to it and by it.
3. The Really Useful Book.
4. Pretty pretty pretty.
5. Also shiny.
6. Somewhere in the beginning, during the circus scenes, there's a juggler with several of those glass balls that Jareth the goblin king has in Labyrinth.
7. The very consistent visual design. Nothing looked realistic, but it all looked like it belonged together. Even the fish.