“They both look the same to me”: Labyrinth at work behind the scenes in MirrorMask
by Elizabeth A. Allen
October, 2005



[Index][MirrorMask and Labyrinth][Mirror Mask: a remake or rip-off?]



10/6/05: A very cynical view of the origins of MM.



Two decades after Labyrinth, the film MirrorMask appeared in theaters in 2005. Scripted by graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and directed by long-time collaborator/illustrator Dave McKean, MirrorMask tells the story of a teenaged girl who makes a stupid wish. By doing so, she endangers a family member. In order to save the family member, our hero must journey through a dream-like world strongly influenced by her real-life artistic endeavors. In the course of her quest, she grows from petulant self-centeredness to maturity.

Why, this sounds exactly like Labyrinth! The only difference is that our MirrorMask hero is named Helena, not Sarah. She’s rescuing her mom, not her half-brother. And her preferred art form is drawing rather than acting. Still, MirrorMask looks like a Labyrinth for the 2000s. If we peek further into the genesis of MirrorMask, we find that it was supposed to be a latter-day Labyrinth created primarily to make money.

The biggest Labyrinthian inspiration for MirrorMask is, frankly, profit. Labyrinth did not bring in much at the box office, but videos, DVDs and soundtracks of the film have given it a lucrative life in the direct-to-viewer market. MirrorMask executive producer Michael Polis explains in an interview with Comic Book Resources that, in the late ‘90s, the Henson Company suddenly woke up and noticed Labyrinth and Dark Crystal DVDs flying off the shelves. “They sold extremely well with little to no promotion,” Polis observes.

Actually, make that with little to no official promotion. Labyrinth has been assiduously flogged since its debut by almost twenty years’ worth of grassroots fanatical devotion, like Jareth’s Realm :p. It took the Henson Company until 1999 to realize how much Labyrinth fans are willing to spend on Labyrinth stuff.

Once the Henson Company realized the second-life success of Labyrinth, they immediately wanted to copy it, and this is where MirrorMask comes in. Polis says, “We looked into doing a prequel to Dark Crystal and a sequel to Labyrinth and ultimately decided…to create something similar or in the spirit of those films…” [Side note: A prequel to Dark Crystal and a sequel to Labyrinth are indeed slated to appear, but in manga form, published by Tokyopop in fall, 2006. Like I said, the Henson Company is milking the Labyrinth cow for all the cash it’s worth.] That is, Polis wanted to make a fantasy film that would generate money for years and years. The best way to do this, he realized, was not to mess with success, but to follow, in Polis’ words, “something…closely associated with Labyrinth in terms of style and substance.”

From what I can gather about early MirrorMask plans, it was more than a “close association” between MirrorMask and Labyrinth. Original concepts of MirrorMask were pretty much a big RIP-OFF of Labyrinth. For example, the Henson Company sought some of the creative minds behind Labyrinth for work on MirrorMask. Martin Baker, an associate producer of Labyrinth, came aboard MirrorMask as executive producer.

Polis notes that they even talked with Brian Froud, conceptual artist for Labyrinth, about working on MirrorMask. But Froud was abandoned because Polis and others felt that Froud’s style would not cooperate with director Dave McKean’s. Ultimately, MirrorMask ended up with a much different creative team than Labyrinth. However, since MirrorMask, like Labyrinth, was produced under the auspices of the Henson Company, Polis and others used Hensonian pressure to fit MirrorMask into the Labyrinth mold.

Okay, what’s this “Hensonian pressure” I’m talking about? Polis alludes to it when he describes how he got Neil Gaiman as scriptwriter. Describing the pitch to Gaiman, Polis relates, “We [Lisa Henson of the Henson Company and I] decided to ask. …Neil [Gaiman] said, ‘If Dave [McKean] is directing this movie, then I’m writing it.’ We also found out that Labyrinth was one of Neil [Gaiman’s] favorite films, which was very helpful.”

I’m sure it was “helpful” to Polis that Gaiman liked Labyrinth. That way, Polis and Henson could tempt Gaiman onto the MirrorMask project with two pieces of bait: Dave McKean and Labyrinth. Anyway, Gaiman was recruited to MirrorMask with the implicit expectation that he do something Labyrinthian.

To enforce the recapitulation of Labyrinth in the film MirrorMask, the Jim Henson Company sent Gaiman and McKean to work on the story in Jim Henson’s freakin’ house. “Dave McKean and I created the story and the script for MirrorMask in the Henson family home in London [actually Hempstead],” says Gaiman in the MirrorMask press kit, “surrounded by memorabilia and artifacts from Jim Henson's…career.”

According to Gaiman in the intro to the MirrorMask illustrated screenplay, one such inspiring artifact was “an early edit of Labyrinth more than hours long.” He and McKean watched the edit “to help put us into the mood.” Apparently Gaiman and McKean got in so much of a Labyrinthian mood that McKean had to tell Gaiman a few times that the script sounded “too much like Terry Jones writing Labyrinth” [again from the screenplay intro] and not original enough!

Gaiman claims that he and McKean strove consciously to get away from too much Monty Python-like humor, as used by Terry Jones in Labyrinth. However, whether consciously or unconsciously, Gaiman and McKean felt that they had to get Monty Python approval for MirrorMask. In an IGN FilmForce interview, Gaiman says that Monty Python member Terry Gilliam joined him and David McKean for tea when they were at Jim Henson’s house. “[He looked] down at our big sheet of [brainstorming] paper and [said,] ‘That looks like a movie.’ … And suddenly this…lack of confidence that had been plaguing us…went away.”

My rather cynical theory about Gaiman’s and McKean’s sudden confidence is this: They worried about MirrorMask because it had some really good Labyrinthian aspects at that point, but no Python. Oh no! But then Gilliam popped round and said their paper was okay, so they were relieved. They could check now off the ‘Monty Python influence’ box on their list of required similarities between Labyrinth and MirrorMask.

Well, no wonder MirrorMask came out sounding like Labyrinth. MirrorMask, as I have shown, overtook the aspirations of the Labyrinth sequel that never was. But MirrorMask did not extend the story of Labyrinth. Instead, MirrorMask immersed itself in the same “style and substance” as Labyrinth, emerging not as a sequel,but as a rewrite [or RIP-OFF, depending on how charitable you’re feeling] motivated by the idea of big direct-to-viewer bucks.



MirrorMask (c) 2004 by Jim Henson Co.
 All original analysis, commentary and art
(c) 2005-present by Elizabeth A. Allen.
Plagiarists will be devoured by shadows.
E-mail: jareth /at/ oddpla /dot/ net