(by Dustin Putman
The advertising and marketing teams at Relativity Media responsible for creating the trailers and TV spots for "Mirror Mirror" should be fired at once. What appeared at first glance as an embarrassment for visionary filmmaker Tarsem (2011's "Immortals"), a fractured fairy tale done in the style of a pun-heavy slapstick on sets that looked like leftovers from "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," is actually a quick-witted, mouth-watering feast for the eyes that tweaks but lovingly adheres to the magical, foreboding soul of Brothers Grimm. If the film fails at the box office, the fault lies solely on the studio's shoulders. They have misjudged and unfairly discredited their own project before it's been released. If audiences don't avoid it like a poisoned apple, it will only be because positive word-of-mouth has single-handedly saved it. Article continues below
As a child, Snow White (Lily Collins) lived peacefully with her beloved father, The King (Sean Bean), who ruled over a prosperous land where villagers were so happy they sang and danced in the streets. Not long before he went away on a voyage and was never heard from again, he married a vain woman who, thus, became The Queen (Julia Roberts). Since then, Snow White has been cooped up in the castle, lorded over by a jealous stepmother who can barely stand the look of someone younger, fairer and more beautiful than she. Her frivolous spending has also left them bankrupt, her money coming from assistant Brighton's (Nathan Lane) collection of taxes in a town that is now in Depression-era disrepair. When a now-18-year-old Snow White defies The Queen and threatens her scheme to marry the wealthy Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), she is sent into the forest to be killed. Instead, she finds herself at the home of seven dwarves whose thieving ways Snow White notices could be used for good, one-upping The Queen, taking back the people's money, and restoring the land to its former glory. For her part, The Queen, enraged to learn of Snow White's survival, decides that she'll have to handle the evil deed herself.
Looks can be deceiving, and "Mirror Mirror" is one instance where the film proper is heaps better than anyone could possibly be expecting based upon its gag-worthy trailers. More akin to a live-action "Tangled" than "Red Riding Hood" by way of "The Three Stooges," it's a bold fantasy of deep, vibrant colors oftentimes reminding of 1937's animated Disney version "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," lush production and costume designs, and complimentary visual effects that pull all the technical elements seamlessly together. As pretty as he makes them, Tarsem avoids getting lost in his ample aesthetics (as he did in the overblown mythological adventure "Immortals"), the shrewd screenplay by Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller doing a fine job of balancing acerbic humor with genuine threat, emotion, and wonder. The characters are also almost universally on point, with the initially meek and soft-spoken Snow White coming into her own as a strong-willed heroine, The Queen cruel and manipulative in deliciously entertaining ways, Prince Alcott appropriately dashing yet down-to-earth, and the dwarves growing into winning individuals after an admittedly shrill introduction.
Julia Roberts (2011's "Larry Crowne") is one of those mega movie stars who comes with a lot of baggage when she is on the screen. No fault of her actingóshe is usually quite strongóRoberts is nonetheless so recognizable that it is difficult to separate the person from the character. In "Mirror Mirror," she lets it all hang loose in ways that she hasn't in years, maybe decades. Visibly becoming more delighted as The Queen's badness intensifies, Roberts delivers stinging passive-aggressive remarks and sly one-liners with the effortlessness of a comedic pro (upon seeing the over-energized outcome of Prince Alcott after slipping him a "puppy love" potion, she thoughtfully remarks, "Well, this could have its pros and cons..."). Meanwhile, her startling lack of empathy (she considers flying the flags at half-mast after she believes Snow White has been killed, then brushes it off by saying, "Too much trouble") ensures that she is not just amusing, but also threateningóand in many occasions, amusingly threatening. Narrating the story as her ownóThe Queen calls attention to how Snow White's name is pretentious and how few characters in fairy tales have jobsóRoberts is an enthrallingly devilish presence in her every moment. It could even be one of the most accomplished performances of the year, thus far.
Lily Collins (2011's "Abduction") looks and sounds ideal for the iconic part of Snow White, even when she goes through a mild makeover in the second half and learns how to literally fight her own battles. A post-feminist portrait of a popular character who, let's face it, didn't do much more than cook and clean well in earlier incarnations, Snow White has been reborn with added layers, skills, and a welcome self-empowerment that's been a long time coming. As Prince Alcott, the immensely handsome Armie Hammer (2011's "J. Edgar") brings an affable looseness to a formerly somewhat stodgy figure, playing well off both Collins and Roberts, the latter unable to concentrate every time he keeps showing up at her throne without his shirt on. Nathan Lane (2008's "Swing Vote") gets great mileage out of the long-suffering Brighton, The Queen's trusty servant, at once faithful to his boss and sympathetic to Snow White's cause. Lane sometimes has a tendency to push things too far over the top, but he doesn't here. It's a surprisingly likable supporting turn.
"Mirror Mirror" isn't some cookie-cutter Hollywood production with large yet workmanlike production values and barely a trace of heart. Though certainly mainstream enough to be enjoyed by just about anyone who won't get scared at certain tense scenes, the picture, under the keen guidance of Tarsem, wholly embraces its sheer unusualness. Quirky details enlighten the proceedings, from The Queen's grisly beauty regimen (involving everything from snakes to maggots to bees to bird feces), to her calculating meetings with her cautionary reflection, to life-sized marionette dolls who invade the Dwarves' home, to the attack on Snow White by a ferocious wooded beast creatively designed to resemble a dragon crossed with a rabid reindeer. On its journey to an ending influenced by Bollywood musical numbers, only passing missed opportunities rear their heads. The comeuppance of The Queen seems a little anticlimactic since viewers will be anxiously awaiting a bigger showdown, while a late scene involving The Queen's poisoned apple leaves things on a slightly queasy note that suggests a devious shade to Snow White that should never have been. In the face of all that is right about "Mirror Mirror," however, a debit or two is small potatoes. This is pretty close to a splendid retelling of a timeless classic.