Jason Keller, Marc Klein, Melisa Wallack (Story: The Brothers Grimm)
Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane, Jordan Prentice, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, Danny Woodburn, Sebastian Saraceno, Martin Klebba, Ronald Lee Clark, Robert Emms, Mare Winningham, Michael Lerner, Sean Bean
PG for some fantasy action and mild rude humor
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Everything from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet has gotten the new vision treatment in the last two decades. It’s almost fashionable to twist common perceptions to give new life to literary classics. Mirror Mirror sticks much more closely to the period in which the original Grimm Brothers fairy tale Snow White, Rose Red was set, but tweaks and embellishes the famed story making it almost unrecognizable.
Director Tarsem Singh (or just Tarsem on occasion) is no stranger to tales of unusual simplicity constructed around visually sumptuous settings. In The Cell, his unique vision helped guide Jennifer Lopez through the maze of a serial killer’s mind trying to locate his last victim. In The Fall, an injured stuntman and a young girl blend vivid stories into imaginative and twisted stories of mythical heroes. In Immortals, he fashions a new vision of the fabled story of Theseus and his battle against the ruthless King Hyperion. All three stories evoke stark visions of a beautiful and deadly landscapes seldom seen on the big screen. And every single one of them was R-rated.
So, it came as a bit of a surprise when Tarsem decided to tackle a well known fairy tale and deliver it as a PG-rated children’s film. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was popularly developed into a feature length film over 70 years ago. Walt Disney’s careful manipulation of a very gruesome story became his stock-in-trade for decades as he brought forward more than twenty films based on well known fables and short stories in an effort to reach out to young audiences without frightening parents. Tarsem knows how to create bleak worlds within the confines of the dark and scary. He could have easily gone back to the roots of the Grimm tale and told a wildly vicious and terrifying story, one that would scare children into doing the right things, as originally intended.
Yet, here we have Mirror Mirror a film that is as sweet and good-natured as Disney would have expected with a slight edge that makes it more relatable to modern audiences. To make it feel more modern, we have a villainess played by Julia Roberts who might be lovable if she weren’t both vain and vindictive. She loves to laugh, but she loves to be pampered more than anything and nothing, not even her step-daughter Snow (Lily Collins) will stand in her way.
Leading a sheltered life Snow knows nothing of the depressing nature of the world around them, having been forced to live under her stepmother’s tight thumb after the death of her father the King (Sean Bean). Like a strip miner searching for the last speck of precious metals in the landscape around them, the queen has nearly tapped out her populace, taxing them to the point of poverty, that the arrival of a charming prince from another kingdom presents a unique opportunity that she won’t miss. Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) couldn’t care less about the queen, simply that he and his traveling companion Charles (Robert Emms) were accosted on the queen’s roads by a band of seven dwarven bandits.
Collin’s Snow is as sweet and innocent as you would have come to expect from the character, but her tenacity and compassion help define a courageous woman, stepping beyond the helpless damsel on display in the Grimm fairy tale. And it’s in this twist on the story where Mirror Mirror almost becomes something magnificent. In the original Disney version, Snow White is saved from the clutches of the evil queen by her handsome prince. This time around, it’s Snow who saves Prince Alcott on a number of different occasions. But make no mistake, Alcott is not a incapable prince. On the contrary, it is his faith in his fellow man that blinds him to their imperfections more than any lack of physical capabilities. He’s quite the swordsman.
The problem with a film like this is that it requires a villain so duplicitous, so easy to hate, that they beg to be overthrown. However, with Julia Roberts in the role of the queen, it becomes a wholly different beast. She’s not detestable, she’s kind of likable in a vain and frustrating way. You can’t hate her even if you hate her actions. Yet, no one else in the palace or kingdom can stand her. So how do you create an antagonist that works out of a somewhat sympathetic character? You don’t. The film’s end result is still entertaining, but it’s not as vicariously enjoyable as you might expect from a story like this. Roberts probably never should have gotten into this role. She’s not right for it and doesn’t seem to interested in trying to make people dislike her. She has a reputation to uphold and there was no way she would let that happen and that’s where the film falters.
Taking Roberts out of the picture, the remaining cast is a fun and eccentric bunch, all of them delivering affable performances, most notably the seven dwarves who have as distinctive of personalities as the original Disney versions. You can’t single any of them out for praise as they are all good. Hammer is a perfect for the handsome prince, infusing the character with his undeniable wit and charisma.
Everything considered and no matter how much Roberts tries, no one can eclipse the rising star of Lily Collins. After dismissable performances in The Blind Side and Priest, I would have pegged her as one of any number of beautiful actresses with limited talent who come and go without so much as a whimper. Yet, her performance in Mirror Mirror might well be the foundation a fantastic career is built on. She crafts Snow as an innocent, charming girl with a toughness that fits the story perfectly. With the right tutelage and guidance, Collins could have a fine career.
Tarsem seems to have found something in Collins that her prior directors couldn’t and that is part of the reason the film works surprisingly well. His visual flair may create something of a distraction, but there’s no denying he has a fine artist’s skill with the camera. Sweeping crane shots are tempered by close ups and soft cuts between scenes that generate a fantastical quality that keeps the film rooted in its fairy tale roots while adding modern sensibilities, clever action sequences and the right measure of comedy to make for an ultimately entertaining film.
On top of it all, this wouldn’t be a Tarsem film without a luscious feast of visuals from the intricate design work on the various parapets, hovels and bedrooms of this magical land to the eye-catching costume design work. Eiko Ishioka, who won an Oscar for her brilliant costuming in Bram Stoker’s Dracula marks her fourth outing with Tarsem and not since Dracula has her work been more interesting. While her high-collared, red frock for Jennifer Lopez in The Cell is somewhat iconic, there’s nothing more exciting than the simple elegance on display in Mirror Mirror. There may not be a gown more creative than the rest in the film, but the body of work deserves an Oscar nomination at the least. It’s that good.
In spite of its widely appealing style and narrative, the film won’t easily appeal to everyone. Those expecting something more darkly engaging like Tarsem’s previous films are going to be frustrated. Once you can give way on any preconceived notion you’ve had of Tarsem’s work, embracing the simplicity of Mirror Mirror may give you a new appreciation for his work and whatever you want to say about Tarsem, he doesn’t sacrifice his artistic vision for a few dollars. He sticks to his guns even with mixed results and for that we should be grateful. It may not be as gruesomely engaging as The Cell, but it’s a far better film in overall quality than Immortals, so at least he’s not sliding into obscurity.
Probables: Costume Design
Potentials: Original Song (“I Believe”), Art Direction, Makeup
Unlikelies: Cinematography, Sound Mixing
May 29, 2012