I was under the impression that the recent glut of reimagined classics like Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman were supposed to update these old-fashioned tales with a modern, pop culture attitude. I’m pretty sure that’s what Hollywood was getting at, at least. Tarsem Singh appears to have once again taken the industry’s money and just done whatever the hell he wanted, turning his new Snow White movie, Mirror Mirror, into the kind of weird-ass cornucopia of light humor and overblown production design that he and he alone must have wants to see. The finished product is a bizarro hybrid of The Princess Bride, Monty Python and “Mother Goose’s Rock and Rhyme,” but nowhere near as interesting as that description – or indeed any other – is likely to make it sound.
Mr. Singh, working from a screenplay by Melissa Wallack & Jason Keller, has stretched the Brothers Grimm fairy tale apart like taffy, turning the story’s simple plotline – evil queen bad, Snow White good, runs off to live in sin with dwarves – into a more conventional tale of quasi-medieval intrigue. The evil queen is still bad, played with vainglorious primping by Julia Roberts, and Snow White (Lily Collins) is still good. But here she's placed under house arrest following the disappearance of her father by the jealous queen, who has spread rumors throughout the kingdom that Snow is an unstable shut-in, unworthy of the crown. When Snow sticks up to her wicked stepmother, the queen tries to have her killed, but makes the time-honored mistake of giving the job to a bumbling sidekick, played this time by Nathan Lane.
So naturally Snow White winds up in the company of dwarves – on high-jumping, spring-powered stilts for some reason – and turns them into a band of Robin Hood revolutionaries, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Along the way, she romances a handsome prince played by the effortlessly charming Armie Hammer, he of future Lone Ranger fame, who almost singlehandedly rescues the film – but not, ironically, Snow White – from a perilous fate. Hammer exudes a natural, hunky charisma, but also an inherent goofiness that doesn’t satirize his heroic prince persona, and certainly doesn’t imbue his character with actual character… Where was I going with this? Oh yes, he’s dashing enough to carry the film despite its deficiencies.
But as underwritten as it is, as underdramatized as it may be, Mirror Mirror is not a travesty. It’s missing something though. The whole film plays like a Muppet movie with the actual Muppets cut out. All the actors appear to be in a constant state of bemusement, but they have nothing to be particularly mused about. All the wacky costumes aside – I suspect this is all going on in The Hunger Games' mysterious District 1 – their story is really a serious one, with an entire kingdom at stake. And yet Mirror Mirror would clearly rather linger on droll asides with the palace guards than what’s actually going on in the plot. There’s enough personality to make this fly, just not enough to make it an exciting ride.
I’m probably approaching Mirror Mirror from the wrong angle. I ask my family films to work on every level, as all the best do, but that’s not what every filmmaker is getting at. As a fairy tale aimed at prepubescent young ladies, Mirror Mirror is probably one of the better kids movies in a while, offering all the familiar fairy tale tropes with a bit of humor and an off-kilter sense of grandeur. It certainly won’t make parents suffer the way the typical CG-animated, merchandise-driven animated film does. And with a little luck this film's good natured weirdness will be your kids' gateway to more better, more intelligent films down the road. I suspect wee fans of Mirror Mirror will find their way to Rocky Horror at some point, and that’s a glowing endorsement as far as I’m concerned. It’s just a pity that this much talent and effort couldn’t have made the timeless tale of Snow White into something more… well, timeless, I suppose.