What’s the last movie you saw that created an imaginary world that was actually beautiful, bursting with color and beauty and inspiration? A world that reminded you of the feeling you had as a child the first time you saw Dorothy open that door on the Technicolor world of Oz? A world you would actually like to enter and walk around in?
So many movie fantasy worlds these days, from Wrath of the Titans to John Carter, from Harry Potter to Red Riding Hood, are dominated by somber earth tones and chilly computer animation. Ironically, two of the most colorfully imaginative exceptions, James Cameron’s Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, were monster box-office hits. Yet “dark,” “gritty,” “edgy” fare remains the Hollywood default.
When Relativity approached Tarsem Singh with the offer of directing a live-action Snow White movie, they suggested an “edgy” approach, but Tarsem wasn’t interested: He wanted to do a family film. The result is a whimsical, riotous movie with a visual brilliance unlike any other family film in recent memory. The story itself is uneven and not always quite as family-friendly as advertised, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent family film that was more worth the price of admission to see on a big screen.
In a way, one could say that the director of Mirror Mirror is the anti-Burton, and I mean that in the best possible way. Like Burton, Tarsem is a brilliant, quirky visual stylist, a poet of production design with an eye for the sumptuously absurd. Yet there’s a darkness to practically all of Burton’s work, including Alice in Wonderland — a lurid, unhealthy pallor amid the riot of color and whimsy, an aura of the gothic and the grotesque. No one in his right mind would want to visit Burton’s Wonderland — or rather Underland — and, anyway, so much of it was painted on computer screens that it never looked like you could in the first place.
Tarsem prefers to avoid digital fakery, relying as much as possible on real sets and practical effects. Although his worlds often look like paintings, they are clearly paintings you could walk around in. The strain of Victorian Gothic infusing Burton’s imagination is absent in Tarsem, whose eclectic influences vary from film to film.
The look of Mirror Mirror begins with Snow White’s fairy-tale castle, an elaborate cluster of spires and onion domes overtly inspired by Antonin Gaudí’s surreal Sagrada Família Church in Barcelona crossed with the Taj Mahal or St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Tarsem’s fairy-tale forest is the antithesis of a Burtonesque nightmare tangle of gnarled branches and misshapen roots, with silver birches rising like clean columns from the snowy forest floor. Somewhat out of place in this forest, but still a wondrous sight, is the dwarfs’ rustic cottage, made in a hollow, uprooted stump of a tree of some species quite unlike anything growing around it.
Then there are the costumes, the last achievement of the late designer and art director Eiko Ishioka, who won an Oscar for her work in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and has created the costumes for all of Tarsem’s films to date. At times the costumes are reminiscent of impossibly elaborate confectionary creations, the work of some mad cake decorator. Or perhaps, given the Russian influence in the film (I've already mentioned St. Basil's, and Tarsem has cited Tarkovsky's Ivan’s Childhood and Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible as influences), we might say that the costumes recall the famously elaborate, jeweled work of the House of Fabergé.
There is a masquerade ballroom scene with all the participants arrayed with animal themes. The evil Queen (Julia Roberts) is a flaming red peacock, with an overgrown collar of white feathers framing her head like a fan tail. Snow White (Lily Collins, Sandra Bullock’s daughter in The Blind Side) is a regal swan, redeeming that noble bird from its tragic association with Icelandic singer-songwriter Bjork. The Prince (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer) is … a white rabbit. There’s some attempt to explain this undignified choice, but it’s basically a visual punch line.
Does this suggest that Mirror Mirror is another revisionist fairy tale inflected by aggrieved male-skewering feminism, like Alice in Wonderland? Revisionist, yes; feminist, yes; aggrieved male skewering, not so much.
The film opens with a beautifully imagined prologue using porcelain dolls to portray the traditional back story of Snow White’s birth, her kindly royal father’s disastrous remarriage and tragic end — though with a narrative twist provided by arch voice-over narration courtesy of the evil Queen herself. After that, though, the story goes its own way, in the process mangling the source material pretty much completely. In fairness, there is some basis in the Snow White tradition for some of its conceits, such as the Seven Dwarfs being bandits rather than delvers, and the mysterious ferocious beast prowling the wood.
Naturally, Snow progresses from being a naive, docile creature to a full-fledged sword-wielding heroine taking on the evil Queen and her magic. This is fine with me; the shortcomings of the old fairy-tale trope of the passive princess waiting for her prince to come can’t be ignored today, particularly by parents with daughters (though, come to think of it, it’s probably just as important for parents with sons). Unlike Alice, Mirror Mirror doesn’t blame patriarchal society for the heroine’s initial vulnerability, since, of course, she’s the victim of the Queen.
The Prince is a somewhat comic figure, though not as lacking in dignity and self-awareness as, say, Prince Edward in Enchanted (checking his teeth in his reflective sword, attempting to give battle to a city bus, etc.). It’s true that he’s robbed twice and stripped to his long johns, and, on the first occasion, he’s left tied up and needs to be rescued by Snow. Later, he succumbs to a rather humiliating spell and — in an outright reversal of the traditional story — it’s Snow who must free him from the spell with a kiss.
Still, he’s upright and honorable and strong enough that both Snow and the Queen pursue him for practical as well as personal reasons. All in all, he makes a reasonably credible love interest for both Snow and the Queen. And his inevitable duel with Snow in the forest is the most fun coed swordfight since Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones crossed blades in The Mask of Zorro.
The script is pretty pedestrian, and the humor seldom rises above the obvious. Julia Roberts is amusingly nasty and catty (there’s a better word here that rhymes with “witchy”) as the Queen, though her comedic secret weapon is the indefatigable Nathan Lane (best known to younger viewers as the voice of Snowbell the cat in the Stuart Little movies) as her put-upon servant Brighton. A gross-out sequence involving the Queen’s nauseating beauty regimen will have kids screaming with squeamish laughter and may or may not amuse their elders.
Alas, the humor is occasionally somewhat risqué. When the Prince and his faithful servant are robbed and stripped, the servant is wearing a corset — and when the Prince shows up at the castle “half nude,” as Brighton breathlessly reports, the Queen is much taken by the sight of his muscular, hairy physique, and only reluctantly allows him to cover up. (The second time it happens, she sighs, “Can someone please get this man a shirt so I can concentrate?”) Then there’s the bit where the Queen drugs the Prince (spoiler warning) with a love potion that turns out to instill literal puppy love, leading him to pounce on top of her and start licking her face. Then there’s a bit where Brighton is temporarily transformed into a cockroach — and afterward wails that, in addition to everything else, “a grasshopper took advantage of me.”
Fortunately, Snow herself is a winsome heroine, and her romance with the Prince is both sweet and innocent. Better still, her hero’s journey is neither a quest of self-empowerment nor a mere romantic quest, but is rooted in something nobler: She discovers, to her dismay, that the Queen’s tyrannical rule has reduced her subjects to poverty and starvation. (What’s more, even the Queen, despite her lavish lifestyle, is flat broke, since you can’t tax a destitute population.) Oh, and while the story comes down, like Alice, to a duel with a dragon-like monster, the climactic twist here is as redemptive as the climax in Alice, um, wasn’t.
Tarsem’s gift for visual invention constantly enlivens the proceedings, from a simple maneuver with a tablecloth to the brilliant nuttiness of the dwarfs’ combat technology, a conceit embodying all possible meanings of the phrase “nonsense on stilts.” The magic mirror becomes something dazzlingly surreal: Instead of a mere interface with the world of magic, it becomes a rippling portal into another world through which the Queen passes, rising like a phantom from the surface of a vast sea onto an eerie wooden structure where she encounters the spirit of the mirror — her own reflection. One of the most stunning sequences is a surreal attack on the dwarfs’ hut that is too good to spoil here.
Mirror Mirror is the first of this year’s dueling Snow White pictures (take that however you like), opening two months ahead of Snow White and the Huntsman. The latter film looks like everything Mirror Mirror isn’t: a gritty, epic adventure with an armor-clad Amazon princess. Mirror Mirror certainly isn’t a perfect film, but it’s closer in spirit to what a Hollywood fairy tale should be than anything anyone else is even trying to do these days.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Some mildly frightening moments and action violence; mild rude humor and a sequence of gross-out humor; depictions of theft. Tweens and up.