This year’s OTHER Snow White movie . . .
STARRING: Lily Collins, Julia Roberts, Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane, Robert Emms, Mare Winningham, Michael Lerner, Mark Povinelli, Jordan Prentice, Danny Woodburn, Sebastian Saraceno, Ronald Lee Clark, Martin Klebba, Joey Gnoffo, Sean Bean
2012, 106 minutes, Directed by: Tarsem Singh
For about 20 minutes, Mirror Mirror offers a robustly storybook aesthetic for its reworking of the Grimm fairy tale of Snow White . . .
From the movie’s opening prologue (Snow White is born, her mother dies, her father, the king, remarries and mysteriously disappears soon after), told with computer-animated marionettes against backdrops in the style of paper cutouts (cleverly set up with an introductory zoetrope), director Tarsem Singh (again, doubly credited with the moniker “Tarsem” in the “A film by” credit) once more displays his command of and flair for a striking visual sense that cuts straight through to the basics of narrative necessity.
This is a fairy tale, so, of course, it will need to be—and only be—alternately romantic and dreamy, earthly and nightmarish.
The movie’s locales, no matter how illogical (an open-air boudoir) or superfluous (the evil queen’s “mirror, mirror” is actually located within an isolated hut in the middle of a body of water that is only accessible through another mirror in the castle), are stunning in their simplicity. Clouds pass by behind the queen as she sits on her throne inside a castle located at the edge of a tall plateau overlooking a lake, at the edge of which is a small hamlet where her subjects live in poverty (from over-taxation) and fear (of a beast). A massive forest surrounds these people; it is a gray void where the seven dwarves have decided to dwell after being exiled as “undesirables.”
In the beginning, we look at Mirror Mirror with the sort of hushed respect due a movie that seems to so perfectly capture some faraway place that never existed anywhere but in someone’s dreams. Have I yet mentioned this is a comedy?
We have the suspicion that screenwriters Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller are going for laughs during that prologue. The wicked Queen (Julia Roberts) offers a reverential narration that suddenly breaks into sternly sarcastic asides, such as saying Snow White’s parents were probably only picking out the most pretentious name they could think of for their daughter and noting that apparently the people only sang and danced back then because that’s all the people in stories of back then ever do.
Somewhere along the way, people’s lines must have gotten crossed; that’s the only explanation for the gaping disconnect between tone and form on display here. One might assume Tarsem was unaware he was making a comedy, but there are too many silly sound effects accompanying actions, too many pratfalls and, in one sequence, spankings, and too many pauses for laugh lines (and far too many pauses of other sorts, too) for that to be true.
No, it simply seems a case that everyone involved knew exactly what they were doing individually and never bothered to come to an agreement as to what exactly they were supposed to do together. The result is a group of actors, seeming to have taken the marionettes from the prologue as inspiration for their performances, appearing in pristinely illustrated frames and reciting jokes that might have been funny had they been placed in a context more conducive to comedy. Maybe they simply aren’t funny in any context . . .
The story should be completely familiar.
Snow White (Lily Collins) has a miserable life in the castle. Her stepmother the Queen insists she stay locked up in her room away from everything and everyone. A handsome prince named Alcott (Armie Hammer) arrives from another kingdom. The Queen, broke from spending so much of the villagers’ money on frivolous things, wants to marry him; he only has eyes for Snow White.
The Queen orders her servant Brighton (Nathan Lane) to kill her stepdaughter, but he lets her escape into the forest instead. There, she meets the dwarves and trains to become a thief—but only of the Queen’s taxes for the purpose of returning it to her subjects—just like them (complete with a training montage).
Aside from the usual beats of the story, the screenplay inserts a few random diversions, each increasing in strangeness, such as the allegedly playful fight/dance between Snow White and Alcott that results in him spanking her intermittently with his sword. Those awkward breaks culminate in a battle at the dwarves’ home, as Snow White and her companions face two, tall marionettes sent to kill the girl by the Queen’s reflection, which, minutes earlier, had informed the Queen that using such magic would be unwise.
The lack of internal logic that results in the sequence is at least consistent with the rest of this hodgepodge of a movie. Even Tarsem’s visual flair in Mirror Mirror becomes commonplace as the movie plummets into the realm of the insufferable.