Sometimes it's nice to expect the worst and get something considerably better. To watch the trailer for Mirror Mirror, the first of two Snow White adaptations to be released this year, was to expect disaster. (A peek-behind-the-curtain look at Hollywood's ever-growing list of botched marketing campaigns is long overdue.) And while no one will accuse this comedic take on the Grimms' well-known fable from director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar (formerly known simply as Tarsem) as being a great film, but you could do a lot worse. In fact, there's something refreshing about a live-action movie that embraces its PG aspirations without condescending to cheap pop culture jokes and crass characterizations.
Supposedly a tale told from the point of view of the wicked queen (Julia Roberts), Mirror Mirror's uneven script does a 180-degree spin at the halfway point to follow princess Snow White (Lily Collins) as she discovers that her stepmom has been plundering the citizens of the kingdom in order to fund her lavish lifestyle. After challenging the queen's authority, Snow White flees into the dark forest to avoid a death sentence and falls in league with seven dwarfish bandits. The same bandits rescued a dashing prince (Armie Hammer) earlier. The same prince the evil queen hopes to marry then milks of his treasure. Sounds like the setup for an epic catfight, doesn't it?
No such luck. Instead, we get a comically kooky take on the beloved fable's tropes. Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller's screenplay seems more like a clever first draft than well-developed property (the humor significantly peters out in the second half), but the cast is charming and energetic, and Singh knows how to martial the forces of art direction to create stunningly inventive images.
With just four features to his name, the Indian-born director has developed a reputation for layered and arresting fantasy visuals that are hard to forget. His ambitious yet flawed The Fall (2006) has found a loyal cult following for its stunning use of exotic locales, and this year's The Immortals boasted a visual style that clearly outclassed its story. In Mirror, Mirror he mixes the script's campy sensibility with an impeccably lush production design to create a world that feels like children's book on steroids.
Where Singh still struggles as a filmmaker, however, is with pace and coherence. Though the cast does its best to move things along, Singh's inclination is to slow things down and drink in his surroundings. This enervates both the comedy and the drama. His attention to action is similarly off-kilter. An attack on the dwarfs' home by giant marionettes demonstrates the Burtonesque virtues of his art direction but also his action limitations. It looks great but the editing is too chaotic to track.
All this is well and good for film criticism but ultimately the movie is meant to be light, family-friendly fair, and on that front it does just fine. The story is sweet and funny enough to capture the attention of the kiddies (my sons — 6 and 9 — were satisfied with all but the kissing), while the performances by Roberts, Hammer and Nathan Lane (as a frantic servant) are gleefully hammy. Even the script's cursory message about the plight and dignity of the 99 percent is handled with red-state-blue-state ambivalence. Yes, the queen behaves like a sociopathic CEO but her preferred method of subjugation is taxation. Who knew the Grimm brothers were such political fence-sitters?