“Mirror Mirror” is like the big-budget Broadway show that you’re forced to see when your parents are in town. The costumes are exquisite, the staging quite grand, the performances typically arch, and while it flits by you it’s easy to be entertained and occasionally tickled (even if you wince more than once during its intermission-free running time because of its sweetness and attempts at relevant hipness). But once it’s over and the house lights have gone up and your parents have returned to Wahoo, Nebraska, you’ll never, ever think of it again. For a movie based in the primordial world of fairy tales, “Mirror Mirror” is remarkably forgettable.
Of the two movies based on German academics Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s immortal fairy tale (the other being this summer’s “Snow White and the Huntsman”), “Mirror Mirror” has taken the decidedly lighter approach much in the spirit of the classic Disney films with a dash of modern goofy whimsy. Adapted by Melissa Wallack and playwright Jason Keller and directed, with all the subtlety of a Super Bowl halftime show, by Tarsem Singh, the film is a lush extravagance that never quite feels big enough, a modern send-up that never does a solid enough job at reinvention, and a kids’ movie too leisurely paced for even children to enjoy. It’s a gorgeous, intermittently amusing bauble. And that’s about it.
The movie begins with a ravishing-looking animated sequence/opening narrative that looks like stop motion animation (even if it’s not), explaining that the king and queen of a prosperous land gave birth to a beautiful, raven-haired child named Snow White but that, alas, the queen died in childbirth. Sometime later the king remarried Queen Clementianna (Julia Roberts) but died shortly after, leaving Snow White as the Queen’s ward. The once prosperous land fell into decay under the Queen’s reckless spending (someone had to pay for all those fabulous parties) and as the film begins in earnest, Snow White (Lily Collins), now about to celebrate her eighteenth birthday, is more or less a prisoner in the castle. The vainglorious Queen is looking to remarry, but the Baron (Michael Lerner) from a neighboring land is too old and wrinkly for her. The Queen has a simpering manservant named Brighton (Nathan Lane, perfectly at home, especially surrounded by Disney alum Alan Menken‘s score) and lives in a palace that seems stylistically indebted to both “Star Wars” and Caesar’s Palace.
Emboldened by her eighteenth birthday, Snow White strikes out on her own, first into the woods supposedly haunted by a fearsome beast, where she runs into a dashing Prince (Armie Hammer) and a band of pint-sized marauders who, unlike in Disney’s classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” are highwaymen and not hardworking miners. She also visits the village, experiencing first hand the destitution of the people and cruelty of the Queen’s governance. Upon returning to the castle she sneaks into an animal-themed masquerade ball, wearing a swan costume that would make Björk weep with jealousy, dancing with the Prince and imploring him to help the kingdom.
Of course the Queen has other designs for the Prince – namely that he’ll marry her and save the kingdom from its dire financial straits. At some point it’s just too much for Snow White (the exact plot mechanics are a little fuzzy) and she runs away to the forest, where she’s taken in by the dwarves (who now have names like Half-Pint and Chuckles). She teaches them not to be thieving lowlifes and they teach her had to have a little edge, complete with a montage that involves sword fighting and her picking out a less prissy ensemble (complete with harem pants). The Snow White/dwarves elements are intercut with the more oversized Queen/Prince sequences, with Julia Roberts vamping it up like we’ve never really seen before. Her Queen is less outright evil than amazingly insecure; even when she’s ordering Snow White’s death it seems less like a vengeance act and more like an unnecessary bit of paperwork. Using dark magic she tricks the Prince into falling in love with her (in one of the movie’s sillier bits, and this is saying something, she mistakenly applies a “puppy love” potion and Hammer is forced to act like a dog), and so a gala wedding is planned. Wouldn’t you know it, it’s up to Snow White and her newly virtuous band of outlaws to stop the wedding, make the Prince realize his true love is Snow White, and rescue the kingdom from ruin?
Well, yes, you would know it, because “Mirror Mirror” is hopelessly, agreeably predictable. Tarsem is a truly talented visual stylist, most notable for bringing disparate influences and design elements into a single, more-or-less cohesive whole. Just a few months ago he was able to combine Caravaggio paintings with rough gay porn to create the underrated B-movie “Immortals” (it’s striking combination of beauty and violence makes this weekend’s “Wrath of the Titans” seem even more dull and infantile in comparison), and here he throws even more into the blender. During the masquerade ball, giant Chihuly chandeliers drip from the ceiling, characters wear Elizabethan dress with New Wave punk rock hairdos, and we can only assume that the accordion-like stilts the dwarves use during their robberies came from some traveling Russian theater troupe (and a lot of it seems to borrow from the aesethetics of early Terry Gilliam films, a director who arguably may have been pitch-perfect to helm this film). The production design is fabulously phony (the “woods” set makes the painted backdrops of Hammer horror movies seem positively naturalistic) and for the most part it works, giving you the sensation of being encased in a three-dimensional pop-up book, especially towards the end when he begins borrowing more liberally from the Disney animated film.
And it’s a testament to the actors that they’re able to punctuate all the gilded visual excess. Roberts, for the most part, gives an incredibly snappy performance (it’s not easy to chew through scenery this embroidered and reinforced), somehow selling the smart-ass-y narration and anachronistic dialogue in a way that would make other actors lilt. But it’s really Collins who is the breakout star, here. The daughter of Phil Collins, she has a heart-shaped face with dark dashes for eyebrows, and much of the movie stays afloat on her charm and presence. She isn’t given a whole lot to do, and there is precious little in the way of threat or pressure or stakes, but you root for her anyway. Hammer, for his part, is goofy and stoic and not at all bad at either.
Tarsem has never had a knack for pacing and towards the second act the movie begins to slow down to the point of taxing sluggishness. At a certain point you stop thinking about the embellishment on the prince’s vest or how the palace looks kind of like the Taj Mahal, especially during the third act when Snow White makes a proclamation that her story is going to end differently than most fairy tales. At this point it seems like the movie is going to stop being just a lush fable and sets its target at something more. Except that it doesn’t follow through at all. Yes, she saves the prince (and the kingdom), but at the end of the movie (and this isn’t a spoiler at all) she’s back occupying the same tired gender roles you’d expect. She doesn’t save the kingdom through military might or inner strength or cooperation but by marrying a rather personality-less dude whose defining character trait is looking good with his shirt off. In a movie that tries to add some fizz to the tired fairy tale formula, it feels hopelessly outdated and stale. You’d think that Tarsem, a filmmaker who has shown himself more than willing to combine disparate elements into something weird and fresh, would have extended that to the movie’s thematic concerns. Instead, it’s the same old once upon a time… all over again. [C+]