Anansi Boys Review – Houston Chronicle

From the October 28th Houston Chronicle:

There are certain books writers turn to for inspiration. Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces garnered admirers (George Lucas being the most famous) who started tapping into age-old plots rather than plowing new narrative ground. Because of Campbell writers started seeing the cross-country trek in Easy Rider, for example, as a modern retelling of The Odyssey. Science fiction and fantasy writers especially took to Campbell because he allowed them to see themselves not as dime-store hacks but as working in the tradition of the Viking sagas and Beowulf.

Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman has made a career of telling modern myths, and he is not subtle about it. The hero of his Sandman graphic novel series is Morpheus, the King of Dreams. His urban fantasy American Gods portrays has-been deities of yore struggling to make ends meet on the harsh streets of the United States – the Mesopotamian fertility goddess is reduced to turning tricks, Odin gets by as a grifter. Gaiman’s latest, Anansi Boys, continues the tradition of mixing archaic mythology with the mundane modern day, this time focusing on the offspring of one of the down-on-their-luck deities from American Gods, Mr. Nancy.

Nancy’s son Charles Anansi is a sweet, reclusive administrative worker engaged to a woman who is saving herself until marriage. The reserved Charles always hated his father’s antics and never forgave the older man for saddling him with the nickname “Fat Charlie” despite his not being overweight. Charlie appears on the verge of having the quiet, predictable life he craves when his caddish and unruly father creates one final embarrassment by keeling over dead in a karaoke bar, groping a woman as he tumbles off the stage.

In the end Anansi Boys winds up sharing less with Campbell’s Hero than with Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, a book beloved by such writers as Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon for its celebration of the irreverent.

After mistakenly giving the eulogy at the wrong funeral, Charlie discovers that his father was actually the spider god Anansi, the trickster figure of West African and Caribbean mythology. He also learns he has a long-lost brother, Spider, who appears to have inherited both Anansi’s magical abilities and his way with the ladies. Spider crawls out of the woodwork and moves, uninvited, into Charlie’s flat.

What Hyde and Gaiman understand is that in fairy tales, which tend to break the world into stark contrasts of good and evil, the trickster interests us because he is both and neither. He sits on the moral border, using mischief to spin gray. As soon as things start looking clear, the trickster reminds us of the complex and the absurd.

Using magic to convince people he is Charlie, Spider blackmails Charlie’s boss and makes moves on his fiancé. Though Charlie is harmless and true, he seems cursed to live in the shadow of his father and brother whose impertinence makes them the life of the party. As Charlie learns the hard way, people always prefer the cocky Han Solo to the wide-eyed Luke. But soon Charlie learns how to make trouble of his own.

Half the pleasure of reading Gaiman comes from his lighthearted prose. You’re either amused by it or not, and I was. The other half comes from Gaiman’s inventiveness. His work resists categorization (Gaiman calls it a magical-horror-thriller-ghost-romantic-comedy-family-epic). Gaiman not only taps into our collective unconscious, as Campbell calls for, but reinvents our myths. In this respect Gaiman is more in the spirit of Hyde, who saw artists as society’s trickster figures. Far from serious, they often approach their work with playfulness and humor. And they challenge our deeply held assumptions about what should be. They set out to do what you’re not supposed to do, thereby, ironically, showing you how it’s done.

Gaiman is a trickster in the best sense of the word. He’s written another novel that fantasy writers will turn to for lessons on how to misbehave.

–Dylan Otto Krider

Mirrormask Review – Miami New Times
From the October 27th Miami New Times:

To the knowledgeable comic book fan, all one need say about MirrorMask is that it was scripted by Neil Gaiman and directed by Dave McKean, with a final product that, while less plot-heavy than most of Gaiman’s writing, faithfully adapts McKean’s unique drawing/collage style into three dimensions. Since those who aren’t comic fans are likely unfamiliar with Gaiman and McKean, describing the sheer individuality at hand presents a greater challenge. How about this: If you were to hit yourself quite hard in the head, then walk into the Museum of Modern Art, where you could literally enter the paintings as all the sculptures came to life and started talking with British accents, you might approximate the world of MirrorMask. Put another way: When Tim Burton manages to see this movie, he’ll realize he just got owned. Gaiman and McKean’s mandate from the Jim Henson Company was to create something in a similar vein to The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, movies that bombed on initial release but have steadily grown in popularity over the years. Because of the strong possibility that a new Henson fantasy might similarly swan-dive at the box office only to recoup on DVD, the budget allotted to MirrorMask was a mere $4 million. Still, thanks to a lack of time constraints, the precedent set by the likes of Robert Rodriguez, and a team of young and hungry computer animators, McKean has made an astounding feature directorial debut that looks as amazing as anything onscreen this year. The word masterpiece, so often inappropriately abused by those bereft of a thesaurus and a sense of perspective, would not be out of place here. Not everything looks realistic, but not everything is supposed to. Like McKean’s illustrations, the movie combines drawings, photos, hazy filters, superimpositions, and computer effects into a pastiche both beautiful and disturbing. Those who criticize MirrorMask will likely decry its relative lack of plot ? basically, the daughter of two circus performers enters a dream world in which she must find the eponymous mask in order to trade places with an evil goth doppelg?er who has replaced her back in reality (the evil substitute could easily be taken as a sarcastic parody of the typical Gaiman fan). Indeed, the script follows dream logic, which is to say that things proceed simply because they do, with characters occasionally figuring out the next step without explanation. But it works, in large part because the pacing and the dialogue are also delivered as if in a dream. That, and occasional doses of Monty Pythonesque humor to show that Gaiman and McKean don’t take this too seriously (comic actors like Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry provide voices for some of the creatures). At any rate, it’s a much better-acted, better-performed story than The Dark Crystal, and it isn’t burdened with the pathetic ending and forgettable songs of Labyrinth; the only musical number here is the most disturbing rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “Close to You” that you’ll ever hear. Not to say that the soundtrack is perfect: McKean has an unfortunate fondness for jazz saxophone during the first half of the story. Those hoping that his artistic collaborations with the likes of Tori Amos and Alice Cooper would pay dividends will be disappointed. Ah, but why worry about that. When you buy this thing on DVD, you can turn the sound down and crank your own tunes; very little of the overall effect will be lost. Funnily enough, at one point, our heroine, Hele

na (Stephanie Leonidas), is given a crucial piece of advice: “Get higher.” She can’t imagine what it means, but you can hazard your own interpretation. It’s interesting that the female lead is named Helena, because Leonidas is reminiscent of a young Helena Bonham Carter, and if this movie is any indication of future output, they’ll probably share a fan base. Like most of the cast, the actress does double duty, playing Helena and Evil Helena. Notting Hill’s Gina McKee plays not only Helena’s mother but also the dream world’s Queen of Light and Queen of Shadows. Jason Barry is the most impressive of the bunch, playing Irish-accented juggler Valentine from behind a mask that covers the upper half of his face while stealing the show nonetheless. McKean and Gaiman are influenced in their story by the best. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Neverending Story are blatant founts of inspiration, as is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ? Helena spends almost the entire adventure in her pajamas. Hayao Miyazaki may not have been as direct a source, but both Howl’s Moving Castle and MirrorMask feature a fortress on bird legs that owes much to Terry Gilliam. Some of this stuff, though, is its own thing ? the human-faced sphinxes, for example, or the anthropomorphic porcupine character who shows up near the end. This is a film that cries out for action figures; why aren’t there any?
–Luke Y. Thompson

Mirrormask Review – Toronto Sun
From the Toronto Sun:

In an era of cinema where anything seems possible, assuming that filmmakers spend enough on the digital special effects, MirrorMask is a rarity.

It is so fresh, so bold and so fantastical on the visual plane that it seems to re-invent the language of dreams and widen the possibilities of fantasy storytelling.

Dave McKean’s film does so to chronicle a 15-year-old British girl’s harrowing, coming-of-age journey. Everything we see in the heightened, surreal world that is presented on screen is a product of the girl’s fertile imagination and her remarkable artistic abilities.

The paradox of how new this looks is that there are dozens of references to the familiar.

In the realm of children’s literature and/or movies, MirrorMask invokes fare ranging from The Wizard Of Oz to Alice In Wonderland, Labyrinth and the underappreciated 1988 drama Paperhouse (a connection made by sharp U.S. critic Roger Ebert, who recognized the dangerous trap that a dreamscape can become).

In the realm of fine art, MirrorMask employs images that suggest the work of Michelangelo, Chagall, Max Ernst, Picasso and even contemporary filmmaker-artists such as Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.

This could turn into a toxic stew in the wrong hands. But graphic artist and director McKean, working with collaborator Neil Gaiman on the story and screenplay, delivers a breathtaking phantasmagoria.

And it has meaning. The core story has weight and substance, even if there are repetitive passages.

The central figure is the girl (a charismatic Stephanie Leonidas, channeling Helena Bonham Carter in her youth). She is a jack-of-many-trades in her parents’ one-ring circus. While most kids want to run away to join the circus, our heroine wants to run away to join real life.

One day, her resentment slides into cruelty. She tells her mother (the lustrous and versatile Gina McKee) that she wishes her dead. Her mother falls deathly ill.

At this point, not surprisingly, the girl escapes into her fantasy world, a quixotic land of good and evil, of dark and light, of creatures so bizarre that the girl does not even recognize how she could have conjured them.

In the fantasyland, Leonidas must find an elusive, rare object, the mirrormask, both to save the Queen of the City of Light from a dire fate and to stave off the gathering forces of darkness. Meanwhile, she catches glimpses of her own destructive alter ego.

Similar to The Wizard Of Oz, the human characters in the fantasy are variations on people from the girl’s reality — and that is reflected in the casting. McKee plays both the good and bad queens. Rob Brydon is both the girl’s real father and the prime minister of the City of Light. Jason Barry plays the selfish juggler Valentine who helps the girl on her quest and then figures into her real life.

The fantastical parts of MirrorMask do wear viewers out. You need patience and faith that contrivances in the plot will disappear. In addition, the real-life ending to the film seems oddly flat, but that may be because of the intensity of the journey.

Yet, no matter how the prism is turned, MirrorMask is unique and dazzling in its surreal show of light.

BOTTOM LINE: Individual dreamscapes may leave you squirming or puzzled but the overall movie has such dazzling phantasmagoria that it holds you enthralled.
–Bruce Kirkland


Additional Anansi Boys reviews appear in the Bookreporter, The Malaysia Star and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Additional Mirrormask reviews appear in the Tacoma (Washington) News Tribune, the Arizona Republic, the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Westender, Toronto Star, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sarasota Herald Tribune, and the Downtown NY Express.