Somewhere between the casting of Julia Roberts as the evil queen and the first buffoonish trailer, I lost all possible interest in Tarsem Singh’s Mirror, Mirror. Of the two competing Snow White movies, I thought it was this summer’s Huntsman that really resembled a Tarsem project; Mirror had a Hallmark gleam and featured one of the dwarves spitting ‘Say hello to my little friend!’ Surely, someone mixed up the director credits on IMDB?
Of course, about five minutes into Mirror, Mirror, it becomes quite clear that not only is this Tarsem’s movie, but he’s the right person for the job. Robert’s queen is vainly narrating, explaining how this is her story, and not that of her spoiled, unduly beautiful stepdaughter. As she speaks, the entire flashback is conducted by animated puppets and there’s a bridge between the sanitized cartoons of Disney and the fearsome traditions of the original tales. The king went to war, was lost in the great woods, and the queen has been ruling as an ill-tempered tyrant ever since, keeping Snow locked up from the outside world.
That melding of several different tones and styles into an enchanting whole is what made Tarsem’s adult fairy tale The Fall such a delightful picture. He’s working in a minor, less ambitious key for Mirror Mirror, but what he comes up with is a light-hearted and goofy fantasy that is more eccentric than the usual dim kid’s fare. Mercifully devoid of the Pacino catchphrases and not nearly as chock-full of corny jokes as ads made out, Mirror feels like what Terry Gilliam’s Brother’s Grimm could have been with less studio interference. It isn’t a great movie, but it’s a fun one; decked out in such garish splendor that there’s no question of who’s fairest.
Mirror Mirror begins by engaging the audience primarily through imagery; this world is a wonderland of clamshell dresses, tea-pot shaped castles, serpentine wood demons and feisty bandit dwarves, wearing accordion stilts that give the impression of giants. The costuming, created by late designer Eiko Ishioka, is the most distinctive element; not just scenery, it ensnares and complements the characters. I was most fond of the animal masks at the ball, and Snow White’s pastel dress and bow which make her look like an elegantly wrapped piece of white chocolate. It would also be rude of me to dismiss the living chess set, whose head gear resemble that man wearing the ship hat in Time Bandits.
Tarsem makes great looking movies every time out, with no exception. But Mirror, Mirror rises above the dead spectacle of Immortals and The Cell because of the energy and charm of its actors. Julia Roberts has never been a favorite of mine, and her two facets—moon-eyed, rom-com temptress or icy modern diva—are more suited to Cinderella’s stepmom than the evil witch of Snow White. Roberts plays the queen as a merger of both; more mirthful and endearing than I would have expected, and a bit more menacing too. She’s having more fun than I’ve seen before, and there’s an air of self-satire in the way she lords it over the peasantry.
Lily Collins, daughter of Phil, is almost classically lovely. She’s got Audrey Hepburn’s graceful features and Groucho Marx’s deep eyebrows. She is, at this point, a bit too green as an actress to make Snow a match for Roberts, but she has presence and poise. Like Amy Adams in Enchanted she suggests the forming woman behind the wide-eyed girl. In a honest to goodness re-imagining that doesn’t change the theme, Snow is now the leader of the bandits and master of her own fate. Armie Hammer does a tremendous and thankless job of playing dumb in a smart way. He has to make the prince endearing to Snow, but also essentially helpless at an emotional level; when it’s time for someone to deliver a salvific kiss, Hammer’s hammy suitor ends up on the non-traditional end of it. Nathan Lane and the cabal of dwarves seemed set to irk my nerves, but they actually bolser the show with restrained comic timing that treats the campy jokes with the precision of a court juggler; not one of them ever drops with a thud.
The flaws in Mirror, Mirror mostly have to do with its ambition. It is content to be a fun and frivolous time waster that plays like a really imaginative bed-time reading session. There’s enough in this telling of the tale to suggest it could have gone further; with more work, it could have sat at the summit that houses Princess Bride, Time Bandits and their ilk. I liked it, was glad I saw it, and was most reminded of Jim Henson’s glorious 80’s tv event The Storyteller, which offered an acceptable compromise between American white-washed fantasy and darker European subtext. For cultural balance, Mirror, Mirror even delivers a catchy musical dance number over the end credits. Consider it Tarsem’s giddy homage to Bollywood brightness.