Back in the dark ages of Spring 2011 the idea of two Snow White films coming out in the same year seemed both obvious and ludicrous. Of course Hollywood was going to make a Snow White film, Abortion in Wonderland had made over a billion dollars and Snow was a logical successor. Also, Hollywood likes to do everything in pairs so whatever failure or success meets one, the buck can be passed to the other. At the same time though, this was two Snow White films. It’s not like Armageddon/Deep Impact or Antz/A Bug’s Life where thematically and narratively they’re similar but concern different characters and plots, no with Snow White you expect seven dwarves, an evil queen, a poisoned apple and Prince Charming. After one of those games of Release Date Musical Chairs where you’re forced to just sit back and watch grown rich men act like children, Tarsems’s Mirror Mirror was to be the first one rushed out of the womb. It’s almost as if they thought they could top Snow White: A Tale of Terror… Fools.
Years after the King has mysteriously disappeared, his daughter Snow White (Lily Collins) is forced into a life of soiltude by her wicked Stepmother (Julia Roberts) who rules the Kingdom with seldom a care for it’s inhabitants. Horribly in debt, the Queen constantly raises the taxes on the kingdom while living in fear that her Magic Mirror’s prophecy will come true: that Snow White, the fairest of them all, will eventually usurp her. When Snow White sneaks out of the palace she encounters Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), their attraction immediate. When the Queen decides marrying Alcott herself would solve her financial woes, she orders Snow White killed but before the task can be carried out, Snow White escapes and takes up with a gang of dwarf bandits.
At first glance, Mirror Mirror is nothing you haven’t seen before but Tarsem begins to zig where you expect him to zag. While there’s nothing revolutionary here, some event shuffling and mature gender politics ensure there’s something here below the surface. Of course being a Tarsem Singh film that’s one mighty good looking surface.
There’s going to come a time when the design elements of a Tarsem Singh film get overlooked because they’re expected but thankfully that time is yet to come. With the sad and unfortunate passing of LEGENDARY costume designer Eiko Ishioka there’s definitely going to be a day when the costumes aren’t as spectacular and that will be a sad day indeed. As a final hurrah, it’s definitely not understated. In fact it wouldn’t be out of the realm of fair to describe Ishioka’s work here as the best of 2012 and it’s only April. While never as visually ravishing as The Fall, Mirror Mirror still adheres to it’s director’s incredibly stylised palate, although for the first time it feels as though his imagination has been restricted by limitations in the budget and (more likely) the schedule. The “mirror” world in particular is especially flat, and a wedding scene late in the film is questionable in scale.
Mirror Mirror doesn’t shy away from it’s set-based production. The locations feel boxed in, the ground’s constantly flat and the camera doesn’t move all that much but somehow this is part of it’s charm. While sometimes in danger of feeling like a Disney TV Movie, every now and then Singh pulls a ‘giant dwarf’ or ‘marionette warrior’ out of the bag and the balance is restored. Through all of this though, it’s hard to shake the feeling that, oddly, Mirror Mirror might actually work better on the small screen. This is a film that should have been released at Christmas and more than likely will become a Holiday TV Staple when it can be enjoyed with the fireplace roaring, the audience relaxing in the storybook nature of it’s construction. For all it’s faults, Mirror Mirror feels like an old-fashioned fairytale complete with magic, heroic princesses and comedy sidekicks who stay the right side of twee.
In Lily Collins’ Snow White, Mirror Mirror has itself a surprisingly strong female role model at the centre of the film, one who frequently challenges Armie Hammer’s Prince Alcott to ‘Hero’ duty while maintaining her femininity. It’ll be interesting to see how Kristen Stewart holds up in a more tradition ‘hero’ role in Huntsman. In fact, praise should be given to Hammer for being so willing to emasculate himself and in the process coming out the other end as the bigger man. Scenes in which he has to admit to a mea culpa with the dwarves and another with Snow White himself come across as genuinely un-forced, something which isn’t as easy as it looks with Hollywood and ‘messages’. The Dwarves, who if push came to shove are arguably led by Martin Klebba’s Butcher are actually really good fun. Fears from the trailers that they may be reduced to cliche spouting stereotypes (“Snow White? Snow Way!” & “Say Hello to my Little Friend”) are frankly confounded as such moments are conspicuously absent from the finished film. Instead the dwarves are loveable, funny characters each with their own charm and personalities. While never fully as distinguishable as Walt Disney’s classic dwarves it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
Of course, as marketed, this is Julia Robert’s show and she runs with it. While never truly terrifying, her Queen is a truly evil character in ways that those following the Occupy Wall Street movement could sympathise with. She’s truly the 1% and she delivers her barbs and venomous asides with glee, owning (not drowning in) Ishioka’s incredible dresses and refusing to eat alive her co-stars instead reminding audiences of that charisma and chemistry that made her a movie star in the first place.
Ultimately Mirror Mirror is a perfect sum of it’s parts. With a wee bit more time and money, Tarsem could have produced something truly special but as it stands it’s merely a good fairy tale told effectively. Well cast, beautifully designed for the most part and carrying a spark of magic that was missing from Tim Burton’s Assfuckery in Wonderland it’s the perfect family film, if just a little less cinematic that one would hope. Something tells me Rupert Sander’s upcoming Snow White and the Hunstman could be the perfect reversal. We’ll see.