Tarsem Singh‘s Mirror Mirror is a constant disappointment, a re-imagining of Snow White so droll and lifeless one wonders when a valiant prince will wander by to resuscitate the poor thing. Though it supposes itself a radical take on classic material, there is little—if anything—new going on here. The Queen is still evil. The princess is still beautiful. The prince, though oafish, is still charming. The two will mostly likely live happily ever after, the very picture of hetero-normative bliss.
Here, Snow White (Lily Collins) is the daughter of a King (Sean Bean). Her mother dies at birth, and her father re-marries. When he disappears, his second wife, Clementianna (Julia Roberts) becomes The Queen, using her royal appointment to drive up taxes and throw lavish parties. The kingdom, as one would expects, is in crippling financial peril, and The Queen must find a suitor who’ll provide her with a line of credit capable of maintaining her lifestyle. In wanders Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), stripped to his underwear after a roadside encounter with a band of thieves. The Queen is immediately smitten and begins plotting to take him as a husband, but he is woefully infatuated with Snow White, who cut him down from the thieves’ trap. When White and Alcott dance at a ball the Queen throws to ensnare the Prince, it’s clear that the two were meant to be with each other.
Naturally, this enrages The Queen, who instructs her henchman (Nathan Lane) to take her to the woods, where she’ll be killed by a griffin-like creature who first appeared around the time The Queen took power. Despite Brighton’s slavish devotion to The Queen, he lets Snow White run away, where she takes up with the thieves—the seven dwarves. Together, they plan to return the Queen’s unfair taxes to the townspeople and restore Snow White to the throne, where she’ll presumably marry Prince Alcott and rule in peace. But The Queen, using the aid of her magic mirror, has Alcott under her spell, setting the stage for a royal wedding.
As cut-and-dry as it seems, Mirror Mirror is an absolute mess of plot elements, bits and baubles of fairy tale shtick stuck here and there to prop up an incredibly weak plot. The mirror, for example, seemingly exists as the story’s sole tangential connection to any previous version of Snow White; her ability to conjure love potions and send puppet assassins after Snow and the dwarves carrying a faint whiff of deus ex machina. The dwarves, too, are superficially updated for our time, given names like Half-Pint, Butcher and Chuckles, saddled with the backstories to match. They take Snow White in, teach her how to fight, and are then locked in their own house when the time comes for them to fight. This is perhaps a better fate than the one that befalls Brighton, who is turned into a cockroach for not killing Snow in the forest. “A grasshopper had his way with me,” he complains to The Queen, preparing for her wedding.
As one expects from a Tarsem movie, Mirror Mirror is visually sumptuous. The castle’s architecture, the odd hut that houses the mirror, the dazzling array of dresses worn by both Roberts and Collins, all of these things look terrific, perhaps better encompassing the heightened, romantic reality of a fairytale than many films that’ve come before. Unfortunately, they’re put in the service of a film so benign that even its climactic role-reversal feels trite, a matter of focus group tested obligation. The action sequences, too, are listless, staged like lazy re-creations of the brawls from Shrek.
Roberts, at least, appears to be having fun, and she is Mirror Mirror‘s saving grace. Though not quite sympathetic—Tarsem reportedly wanted the audience to look upon a woman who’d poison a teenager with an apple as more human than monster—her vanity not only makes her more human than any other character in the film, but also provides for all of the film’s worthwhile scenes, among them a lavishly ridiculous spa-treatment involving bees, worms, and bird droppings. When the cartoon peril is finished, I’m left feeling like The Queen probably deserves Prince Alcott more than Snow White does. God knows she put more work into her pursuit.
Mirror Mirror. Directed by Tarsem Singh. With Julia Roberts (The Queen), Lily Collins (Snow White), Armie Hammer (Prince Alcott), Nathan Lane (Brighton), and Sean Bean (King). Released March 30, 2012, by Relativity Media.