By Richard von Busack
“One bad apple” says the poster, and that’s about the size of it. Director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar (whose best film remains The Fall) takes on the folk tale “Snow White and The Seven Dwarves.”
Singh’s ideas shine through in some moments: life-sized ivory puppets performing the preamble of the story, about the fall of a king and the rise of his evil wife, the new Queen. The puppets (elongated and something like Gothic figures) are mirrored in a sequence with the attack on the dwarves’ cave by a brace of 8-foot tall living puppets with huge wooden hammers. And the Slavic touches (a Russian mural, and the onion domes on the palace) move this sideways away from Disney. So does Tarsem’s Bollywood finale.
But on the whole, the script stinks. It’s vulgar without the redeeming quality of being raunchy; and thus creepy when it tries to get to an older-age style of humor, such as the Queen’s lovebird-dung facial, or a joke about a cockroach raped by a grasshopper. Mirror, Mirror has the sense of something that’s been bulldozed, most likely by its star Julia Roberts. She slouches through it, wrapped in gold satin, assured that she’ll be a queen in every scene.
The depths of fairy tales have been reevaluated by recent writers, from Angela Carter to Neil Gaiman to Gregory Maguire, who wrote a Tuscan version of Snow White also called Mirror, Mirror. But this Mirror, Mirror doesn’t want to go deep; it tries to explain every one of themes it touches. Example: Prince Alcott, a stranger at the palace, shows up for a fancy dress ball where the theme is animals; he wears a top hat and rabbit ears. Hammer is all and lean and the look isn’t bad, but then he explains that in folklore, a rabbit is a trickster. And then he apologizes for the ears. Couldn’t he have just demonstrated some trickery? (Alcott is actually a stick; brave but mostly a dunce.)
As good as Armie Hammer has been elsewhere, he turns out not to have much of a gift for farce. At the lowest point, he has to pretend to be enchanted into thinking he’s a dog, talking just like Dug in Up. Tough for a young actor who takes himself seriously. What can Hammer do? He seems to model himself on Brendan Fraser, going through it one more time for the sake of the kids in the audience.
Credited writers Jason Keller and Marc Klein, working from a story by Melissa Wallack, seem to be emulating The Princess Bride as a heavily narrated, in-joke riddled story. There’s even a line about focus groups in it. What better way to semaphore the anxiety about this movie?
Visuals aside, Mirror, Mirror takes no chances. As the evil Queen, Roberts delivers lazy little putdowns to her minister Brighton. He’s played by Nathan Lane, who might have been able to animate this mess if it was on stage. Of course, there, the general staginess wouldn’t be noticed.
The Queen has another minister: a magic mirror hidden in a thatched fishing hut on a mystic lake: the white, smooth phantom inside boasts of having less wrinkles than the Queen. Julia Roberts has wrinkles? What we see here is an actress stuck in the porcelain-mask stage.
The dwarfs, who have accordionized legs that act like stilts, are brigands here. That’s not a bad idea, but they’re still victims. The story has it that they wanted to be honest, but they were pushed out of the local village as “different”—ethnically cleansed, in short. The script misses a chance to make them proactive by suggesting the little people could have gone out on their own, like Robin Hood’s merry men, when they were sick of the Queen’s taxes.
As for Snow White herself, she’s called “Snow,” which isn’t a bad idea. In a depilitated age, Lynn Collins brings back the full eyebrow, almost to the bushiness of Tom Cruise in Interview With A Vampire.
It’s an interesting look. It reminds one of the impact Ingrid Bergman must have when she arrived in the highly-tweezed American movie industry.
Still, it’s not encouraging when you’ve got an actress, and her eyebrows are the only thing you feel like writing about. At this point in her career, Collins has an untouchable chipperness that recalls beach party princess Annette Funicello. No matter what happens, neither her mood nor her voice range changes significantly. We don’t understand she feels about being imprisoned for years, or how she’s learned to handle her stepmother. Snow doesn’t have the guile an abused child learns.
Collins wears the gowns well, especially a bare-shouldered fencing costume.
Mirror, Mirror is the final film by renowned costume designer Eiko Ishioka. The number of films saved by their costumes remains small.
Mirror, Mirror insists that this tale has no power because it’s been told too many times. And then it makes sure we can’t take it seriously by telling that tale as if it were a high school skit.