Fairy tales are big this year, what with "Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm" on television and not one but two versions of "Snow White" coming to theaters. "Snow White & the Huntsman," which is set for release in early June, looks to be the more interesting of the two - a dark, retelling of the story with Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen. First up, though, is "Mirror Mirror," a visually stunning, if sometimes strained comic version with Julia Roberts playing the Evil Queen to the hilt.
At least Roberts appears to be having a great deal of fun, throwing off imperious commands and one-liners with considerable comic brio; and she looks great, as does the film itself. "Mirror Mirror" looks like the best movie Tim Burton never made - it has an extravagant, somewhat satiric look that's even more eye-popping than Burton's take on "Alice in Wonderland." This is due to the considerable talents of Tom Foden (production design) and the late Eiko Ishioka (costume design). Their collaboration gives the film its chief strength - a seemingly never-ending blast of color and visual invention that enhances the often juvenile re-telling of the famous Grimm fairy tale.
Those who know the work of director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar (aka Tarsem) are familiar with his loopy, opulent visual style, previously seen in "The Cell," "Immortals" and "The Fall." Given the fairy tale setting (the movie looks like it takes place inside a snow globe) and the musical-comedy-styled script (from Marc Klein and Jason Keller, from a screen story by Melisa Wallack), this makes for his most playful work to date. While some of the jokes fall flat, many elicit laughs; and the film’s snarky tone is balanced by just the right touch of sentimentality.
Too bad Tarsen didn’t go further and completely deconstruct the narrative and tell it from the Queen’s point-of-view, then "Mirror Mirror" would have been something extravagant and subversive. As it stands, it’s a decent kids’ movie made better by its meticulous look and fine cast.
The film opens with a confident animated sequence in which the backstory is told: a King, a widower, decides to remarry to give his young daughter, Snow White (Lilly Collins), a mother. He chooses a beautiful, if vain woman, then quickly disappears in the forest. The kingdom - happy and rich - falls into ruin and perpetual snowfall (the snow apparently keeps the Queen young and beautiful). She keeps Snow White locked up in her room; but when the girl turns 18, she sneaks out of the palace and realizes how the Queen has ruined the kingdom. She also meets a handsome, wealthy Prince (Armand Hammer), who has been mugged by the seven dwarfs and left shirtless and hung-upside down with his aide. (A funny, homoerotic image.)
The Prince turns up at the Palace and the Queen goes into cougar mode when she sees him shirtless, hoping to marry him. He, though, is much more attracted to Snow White, who crashes the Queen’s costume ball in a Swan dress that Bjork would envy. Enraged, the Queen has her aide (Nathan Lane) take Snow White into the forest to be killed; instead he lets her go and she’s befriended by the seven dwarfs, who take her in. She joins them in their criminal ways and fights the Prince. The Queen uses magic to get the Prince to love her (though it’s not quite what she expects). But as this MILF is about to marry, Snow White kidnaps the Prince, which sets up a final confrontation with the Queen. That famous red apple makes an appearance, but it fits in the story in a way that is different than past re-tellings. Suffice to say that by this point, Snow White has her groove back.
As Snow White, Lilly Collins (daughter of singer Phil Collins) looks like the Disney-animated character come to life, and has both a naiveté and spunk that shades her performance. Armand Hammer is every inch the Prince. He nicely pokes fun at the Prince’s stolid persona while playing it straight, which turns out to be quite an achievement. Even when he’s forced to imitate a puppy in love with the Queen (don’t ask), he’s quite charming. Nathan Lane is less annoying than usual as the Queen’s aide, which means that mugging is kept at a minimum.
On the other hand, Roberts is all about being over-the-top. Her Queen is funny, nasty, bitter, bored, icy and fiery - throughout she pokes fun at her own America’s Sweetheart persona. She takes a creepy cartoon character and makes her quite funny. The cast and the fairy tale look - the film sometimes appears to be a Maxwell Parrish drawing come to life - make "Mirror Mirror" surprisingly better than its trailer indicates. That it could have been something special is regrettable; as it stands, it’s a guilty pleasure.