Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
April 2012

Mirror Mirror

The lighter side of Grimm

Tarsem's colorful take on Snow White is as lightweight fairy tales get

Mirror Mirror
Relativity Media
Director: Tarsem Singh
Screenplay: Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller, based on the fable by the Brothers Grimm
Starring: Lily Collins, Julia Roberts, Armie Hammer, Jordan Prentice, Danny Woodburn, Nathan Lane and Michael Lerner
Rated PG / 1 hour, 46 minutes
Opened March 30, 2012
(out of four)

One thing Julia Roberts has never been is wicked. She is required to be just that in Mirror Mirror, a re-working of the Snow White fable which (possibly due to Roberts' own star power) focuses as much on the Evil Queen as it does on Snow White, if not more so.

I'm all for actors playing against type. I think they often do some of their best work when they subvert their typical persona - perhaps in part because they're violating our expectations. Just think of Tom Cruise in Magnolia or Collateral, Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove - and, just for good measure, a lesser-known example: Pierce Brosnan in The Matador.

But for whatever reasons, and whether they're mostly attributed to Roberts or not, she does not join those ranks. Her rare turn as a villain is neither poisonous nor scary, the Queen's sarcastic and sinister barbs falling completely flat at the movie's expense. The Queen is petty and jealous, but that never comes across as the kind of amusing cruelty the film is going for. (It doesn't help that she never gets anywhere close to a strong handle on the British accent.)

In Roberts' defense, the flimsiness of the script's humor gives her little reason to have much conviction in the material. This is a movie designed specifically for young children and its comedy follows suit. There's nothing wrong with movies made just for kids - but I can't very well pretend the humor works for anyone above a certain age, or that the rest of us won't find much of it incredibly cloying.

Mirror Mirror does have a few amusing gags, and to be honest it's a masterpiece compared to its trailer, which had me believing it would be the worst movie of this or any other year.

It isn't, but neither is it much to remember, either. Leave it to the visual imagination of director Tarsem Singh to elevate a mechanical screenplay impaired precisely by its lack of imagination. The movie's failure probably has something to do with its dogged commitment to its target audience. The story is so easy to follow, so easily digestible, it's almost alarmingly uninteresting - but that flaw won't matter too much if you're 8. For everyone else, what interest is there in a story that only too precisely hits all the obvious beats?

Reaching a demographic is one thing; dumbing things down to an elementary-school level is another. There are plenty of movies that accomplish the former without stooping to the latter.

But I digress. Tarsem is a director I continue to admire even though I've only ever fully enjoyed one of his films (2006's The Fall). His capacity for visual artistry is so vast, he can take even a humdrum movie like this one and inject it with life. Consider the setpiece in which life-sized puppet figures (controlled remotely by the Queen) attack the seven dwarves' cozy forest cottage. Or the elaborate attire at the Queen's lavish party, where everyone's costume is inspired by one animal or another - and seems to match its wearer's personality to a tee.

What Tarsem is able to do (along with, among many others, his costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who died after completing work on the film and to whom the film is dedicated) is magnify this fantasy kingdom, giving it an oversized, cartoonish feel that works in the movie's favor. There's also a stagy, storybook aesthetic (particularly evident in the forest) that reminded me of the old Hammer films, or the Faerie Tale Theatre series that aired in the 1980s.

There's so much to be said for each of the film's sets and setpieces, and so little to be said of anything else. I feel sorry for Lily Collins, who earned the plum lead role of Snow White, only for the role to call for little more than having fair skin and being pretty. To her credit, she gives more of a performance than the movie deserves.

And then there's poor Armie Hammer as the handsome Prince Alcott, forced to act out an embarrassing attempt at comedy when he falls under a "puppy love" spell and behaves like a submissive and adoring pet dog, complete with licking and the fetching of sticks. Once again, to his credit, he makes the scene better than it had any right to be. It's still bad comedy, but Hammer gives it his every ounce of comedic energy.

In fits and starts, Mirror Mirror is amusing enough as a sort of fanciful live-action cartoon. But the sheer beauty and audacity of its production design isn't enough to sustain a film whose other parts run out of interest by the end of the first act.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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