A few months back, my friend Katrine and her friend got into a big discussion about MM which gets at its central theme of dreams and responsibility. When Helena objects to performing yet again, her mom, Joanne, tries to coerce her into participating by saying, “You know your father keeps this circus running on peanuts. It’s his dream.” Later, in the Light Lands, when speaking to the Prime Minister, Helena states, “It’s my dream. I’ll find the Mirror Mask.” [Or something to that effect.] Further on in the movie, Helena talks to Joanne, who sees Valentine in the background and says, “Hullo, did I dream you a boyfriend?” So we have three dreams competing for supremacy here: Morris’, Joanne’s and Helena’s. Whose dream is MM? Thanks to mysterious LJ user lupa for the thoughts about Helena as child laborer.
MM could be Morris’ dream. Joanne explicitly points out that the circus is his “dream,” his job, his goal. While Morris is the ringmaster, both his wife and Helena perform in the circus and work backstage too, subsuming their desires to keep the circus going. They literally act out his dream.
Morris’ dream spills over into Helena’s sleeping world as well. In fact, before she realizes she is dreaming, she mistakes Valentine, the fiddler and the juggler for fellow troupe members. Once Helena gets going on her quest, she meets characters in masks, just like those in her father’s circus. Though laid out according the the geography of Helena’s art work, the land of MM takes equally strong visual cues from Morris’ circus, so it is, in a very real sense, his as well.
To stretch things just a bit more, Morris’ dream arguably rules not just the real-life scenes and the dreaming scenes, but the entire structure of the movie. Joanne’s collapse in the ring causes an internal crisis for Helena, yes, but it also causes commotion in the entire circus. Because of Joanne’s illness, Morris stops the circus tour. Finances, which were already “peanuts” anyway, become tighter [note that Helena runs interference between Morris and the bank] while the circus members worry. Announcing that they are departing from the troupe to seek work up north, one of the Finnish acrobats says, “We are rats sinking the leaving ship.” You know things are bad when people refer to your circus as a shipwreck! Anyway, since the continuation of Morris’ circus depends on Joanne’s return to health, Helena’s dream quest to heal the White Queen / Joanne can be read as Morris’ dream as well. MM charts Morris’ struggle to realize his dream and his anxiety when his dream is threatened.
Okay, so Helena might be acting out her dad’s dream. Additionally, she may be acting out Joanne’s dreams that she be an obedient daughter — a compliant child laborer rather than a child. If you think I’m overstating, look at the scene where Joanne yells at Helena in her trailer. Helena is making up stories, playing with sock puppets, sketching — in other words, she’s behaving in a developmentally appropriate way for a lonely, artistically inclined, 15-year-old girl. Joanne perceives these activities as immature. She contrasts Helena with the kids in the audience when she says, “Those kids out there want to run away to join the circus.” It’s okay for the silly kids in the audience to have circus dreams, according to Joanne, but those kids expect a show. As part of the show, Helena has a job to do. Joanne wants Helena to accept her role as working performer and as responsible adult [Helena is the only teenager in the troupe]. To put it another way, Helena supports her father’s dream of running the family circus by being a responsible adult, which is her mom’s dream.
Joanne’s dream shows up in Helena’s dream world as well. During a confusing sequence [find out exactly where and when in the film this occurs], Helena talks to her mom, who occasionally turns into the White Queen. Like I said, when Joanne sees Valentine, she thinks that Valentine is a creation of hers, not Helena’s. That is, Joanne thinks that Helena and Valentine are in her dream, not Helena’s.
Joanne’s “Did I dream you a boyfriend?” line makes Helena’s quest problematic. Just as you can convincingly argue that Helena’s quest is actually Morris’ quest for the circus [as I did above], you can also make the case that the dream sequence is Joanne’s wishful thinking. In the dream sequence, Helena spends no time procrastinating with toys and stories. She sees that the White Queen / Joanne needs help, and she promptly volunteers her services. Through Helena’s quick thinking, hard work and responsible actions, the White Queen / Joanne is restored to health. Obedient child supports family unit — yup, that’s Joanne’s dream all right.
Where do Morris’ and Joanne’s equally strong desires leave our poor protagonist Helena? You’d expect a girl of her age to have some independent mental, emotional and imaginative development, but, as I’ve shown above, her internal conflicts are overdetermined by what her parents each desire. Helena is neither stupid nor unimaginative, but she remains mentally, emotionally and imaginatively dependent — extremely dependent — on her parents. She shows flashes of independent, critical thinking, like the characterization of her dad as the clueless and ineffectual Prime Minister, as well as her defense of the Dark Princess [“She’s not a pet! She’s not even a child!”] to the Dark Queen. In the end, though, Helena appears to save the Light Queen and banish the Dark Princess [her rebelliousness], restoring filial obedience and the family dream.
Maybe MM is best viewed not as the dream of a particular character, but as the dream of the entire family. Since they run a small business on a small budget, Morris, Joanne and Helena not only eat and sleep and talk together, but they work together, almost every single day. They each have very little space or time to themselves. They live in an intimacy that most of us would find smothering, an intimacy that is increased by the nature of the circus. First, the circus requires constant travel, leaving its members little time to make friends or sustain relationships outside of the troupe. Second, the circus requires performances, so, even if the circus members do get to interact with non-circus people, it’s because the troupe is performing and the audience is cheering, not because the two groups are mingling. Given their situation — a combination of tight-knit interdependence and social isolation — it makes sense that Helena takes on her parents’ desires in her dream quest even as she feels ambivalent. Unlike its ancestor and acknowledged inspiration, Labyrinth, MM is not a coming-of-age tale. It’s a vivid portrayal of a family straining under unusually harsh circumstances.