Film Review: “Mirror Mirror”

by Jason LeRoy on March 30, 2012

Lily Collins and Armie Hammer in MIRROR MIRROR

starring: Lily Collins, Julia Roberts, Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane, Mare Winningham, Michael Lerner, Sean Bean, Mark Povenelli, Martin Klebba

written by: Marc Klein and Jason Keller

directed by: Tarsem

MPAA: Rated PG for some fantasy action and mild rude humor

While it is becoming increasingly common to see two films with the same subject in the same year, I can’t think of another time when the expectations for those two films were so diametrically opposed. In one corner we have Snow White and the Huntsman (June 1), starring Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart, and Chris Hemsworth; its startlingly dark trailer has been burning down the internet with breathless anticipation from its first glimpse. And in the other corner, we have poor, pretty Mirror Mirror. It is difficult to pinpoint what exactly has been turning people off about it, but I have not seen or heard many references to it that didn’t include the assertion that it “just looks awful.”

And yet: it isn’t! It is actually one of the better live-action family films I’ve seen in some time. The key phrase there is “family film,” because that’s what Mirror Mirror is; in this sense, it is clearly unfair to compare it to Huntsman, which is demonstrably targeted to a more adult audience. As a family film, it is sly and charming, directed with elegant eccentricity by the inspired visionary Tarsem (The Cell, The Fall), whom one would expect to see at the helm of the darker Snow White film rather than this harmless little bonbon.

In this mostly traditional yet somewhat updated retelling of the fairy tale, the radiantly dewy Lily Collins stars as the beleaguered princess, who finds herself at odds with her evil stepmother, the Queen (Julia Roberts), on her 18th birthday. Snow White has been held captive in the castle since the disappearance of her father, the King (Sean Bean), when she was a child; but now that she is 18, she defiantly decides to exit the castle and visit the kingdom. To her horror, she learns that the Queen’s extravagant lifestyle has driven the commoners into financial ruin. A real tax-and-spend type, the Queen.

Snow White also meets the handsome Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), who has just been robbed and stripped by a band of thieves consisting of seven dwarfs who walk on accordion stilts. He returns to the Queen’s castle to ask for help; but when the Queen learns that this handsome prince is also quite wealthy she decides that she will marry him, in much the same manner that one imagines Madonna picking out a lithe young Israeli dancer. There’s just one problem: Prince Alcott is smitten with Snow White. Cue the order to murder Snow White, her rescue by the dwarfs, etc. But Marc Klein and Jason Keller’s screenplay gives the final act enough tweaks and feminist revisions to at least create the illusion of freshness.

Aside from these changes and the sumptuous visuals (the costumes are nothing less than jaw-dropping, and were created by the late, great Eiko Ishioka, who won an Oscar for Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Mirror Mirror chiefly projects its “unique” personality in its narration and dialogue, which aim to be anachronistically funny in a Shrek way. We discover this in the very first scene, as the Queen is narrating the story of Snow White’s birth. “They named her Snow White,” Roberts intones in the wavering pseudo-British accent she uses sporadically throughout the film, before adding in a flat, unaffected voice: “Because I guess they wanted to call her the most pretentious name imaginable.” Which, I mean: okay, nice try at a joke there, but that’s a very jarring moment tonally, I don’t really think “pretentious” is the right word. “Cloying,” maybe; “overly precious,” sure.

So the first joke lands with a thud, and the subsequent jokes have maybe a 50/50 success rate. The film is witty without being especially funny, with a few delightful exceptions and some loony physical comedy for the kids. Much of the humor comes from the acting. Roberts get to chew the scenery in what seems like the culmination of the bitchier roles she’s been favoring over the last few years; she does imperiousness quite well, and her line readings drip with humor. Hammer is perhaps the most surprising standout, giving an impressively goofy yet still very dashing performance. He is pitch-perfect. Nathan Lane also shows up as the Queen’s henchman, doing that bumbling human-cartoon thing he does so well.

At its core, Mirror Mirror doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a visually accomplished and lighthearted retelling of a classic fairy tale. It could also launch the career of Collins, a very poised and self-assured young actor who resembles Audrey Hepburn as played by a young Jennifer Connelly; she taps into a less screwball version of that classic Disney princess energy displayed by Amy Adams in Enchanted. Also reminiscent of Disney is the immediately soothing score by eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken. Mirror Mirror may be one of the Disneyest films to have not actually been released by Disney, but the direction of Tarsem gives it enough edge to make it commendable.

Mirror Mirror opens nationwide today.

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