The hardest reviews to write are the ones where you have to juggle your personal opinion on a movie with a more objective, critical appraisal. I’ll admit this is something I don’t have a lot of experience in, and so it’s vexing that this review so calls for it. So let me be up front: I love Mirror Mirror, but it’s a movie with some serious problems. I feel full disclosure for the level of gush that might go on is important right off the bat.
Mirror Mirror is the first of two Snow White adaptations coming this year, and unlike it’s gritty sibling Snow White and the Huntsman is first and foremost a comedy. In doing so, it joins a long line of subversive fairy tale send ups like Shrek or Enchanted or even Tangled, which is mostly a hell of a pedigree to try to offer anything new on. This coming from director Tarsem Singh, known mostly as a visualist with great eye but poor taste in projects, last seen stinking up the screens in the not-particularly-mentionable The Immortals.
Thankfully, the ponderousness that sunk The Immortals is mostly absent from this story. Initially a fairly straight retelling of the myth, we’re quickly introduced to the Evil Queen (Julia Roberts), who lords over her kingdom as a means to satisfy her greed and vanity. Having assumed the role of ruler after the King died years ago, she then ordered Snow White into seclusion in order to keep her from assuming her rightful place as ruler of the kingdom. Snow (Lily Collins) is relentlessly naive, but after being offered an opportunity to sneak out of the castle, she discovers the abject poverty her people have been living under.
She decides to do something right as Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) shows up, looking to unite his kingdom with that of royalty of another land through marriage. The Queen quickly steps up to the plate, ready to escape her nearly bankrupt kingdom and attach herself to the much younger, handsome Alcott. Snow, meanwhile, decides that she could approach him to try to get him to back her in a move to usurp the Queen. This goes about as well as one could imagine, with the Queen seeing through Snow’s plot and having her sent out into the woods to be killed by her simpering manservant Brighton (Nathan Lane, hamming it up in classic Lane fashion). One compassionate moment later, and Snow is alone in the woods, a fugitive from the Queen’s wrath, until she comes across seven dwarves tucked away in the woods.
This is all mostly straightforward framework, and unfortunately it’s some of the weakest parts of the movie. The set up is relentlessly general, telling us a story we’ve heard plenty of times without any particular aplomb. In fact, roughly the first third of the film lands with a real thud, with Snow mostly a passive participant in her own story and pieces being moved like the giant chessboard the queen keeps using real people as pieces. In fact, Roberts is the only thing that buoys this opening up, her Queen straddling a fine line of ridiculous villainy and sympathetic, flawed antihero of her own story of trying to hold onto youth and power.
It’s the dwarves that really save the day, a ragtag group that used to be part of the kingdom until the Queen’s ‘no ugly people’ policies forced them into the woods where they turned to highway robbery to get by. They’re a motley crew, to be sure, but they’re all distinct in personality and motivation, and what they serve to do when they meet Snow is to crack her out of her shell. Collins plays Snow initially as completely naive, cloistered in a tall tower most of her life, her suitability to rule mostly a matter of juxtaposing her innate innocence against a Queen driven by selfishness. That said, the dwarves decide that some training and confidence building will do her good, and one lighthearted montage later she becomes the eighth bandit, still almost wholly good but with a lighthearted playfulness that really elevates the rest of the film. It’s not entirely dissimilar to what worked for Tangled, to be sure, but Collins plays it with a slyness that’s surprising, hiding a surprising amount of heart and smarts underneath eyebrows so prodigious they could probably rule the country alone.
This role as rebel puts her in direct opposition to the Prince, who has been convinced (and later coerced) by the Queen into believing that Snow was at first dead, and then an unstable threat to the solidarity of the kingdom. That doesn’t really change the instant chemistry a newly liberated Collins and Armie Hammer have, and all of their exchanges play out with the sort of easy romance that these movies need and often rarely find between their leads. There is a sword fight between the two that reminds one of The Princess Bride for sheer pluck, and they become easy to root for even if they’re at cross purposes much of the film.
Unfortunately, the increased attention of Snow’s rebellion brings the wrath of the Queen down harder, mostly in the form of magical creatures that are distressingly average CG. It’s nothing terrible, but it detracts from a movie that is almost singularly defined by the ornate and colorful designs that are Tarsem’s bread and butter. The world of Mirror Mirror is simply gorgeous, most notably the incredible costuming from long-time and unfortunately late costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who previously won an Oscar for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The film looks and sounds great beyond that, however, with a solid score from fairy tale composing master Alan Menken and set design that is among Tarsem’s best work. From minimal forest landscapes to rich castles that remind me of The Fall, down to the magic which has a beautifully haunting quality not entirely dissimilar in construction and tone to that of Mirrormask, itself a modern fairy tale more known for style than substance.
That’s not to say that Mirror Mirror isn’t without any substance–it quickly starts to hit far more than it misses, and I can’t think of a movie since Tangled that is more whimsical with this kind of storytelling. In particular, there’s a bit of late-movie stunt casting and a memorable credits sequence (neither of which I would dare to spoil, they’re too beautifully surprising for that) that had me grinning even as I walked out of the theater. I’ve already admitted bias, but I have to reiterate just how joyful the whole affair feels. It’s concerns are mostly with being light-hearted and carefree, the kind of movie that wants nothing more than to make you laugh and tell its charming story. And it works, better perhaps than it even should given its own setup, on a cast that works off of each other in wonderful ways. It’s certainly not for anyone wanting a weighty, thoughtful film, but for the kinds of sunny narratives that film is so suited to telling and does so rarely, there’s little out there of late that comes close to equaling it.