Fairy tales are everywhere these days, and I couldn’t be happier ever after. The tremendous TV shows Once Upon a Time and Grimm, and the debut of Tarsem Singh’s take on Snow White, Mirror Mirror, remind even the most jaded adult that there’s something enduring about magic potions, true love’s kiss, fairy godmothers, and the dark rot that often lays at the center of it all. As I raved about the much anticipated Mirror Mirror to my coworkers, I was stunned when they informed me that the film’s been panned by many critics. I couldn’t disagree more heartily.
Singh throws us headfirst into the most visually resplendent cinematic storybook since Pan’s Labyrinth. A kingdom erected perilously close to the edge of the world houses the evil Queen (Julia Roberts), who has locked her stepdaughter Snow White (Lily Collins) away in her room since the mysterious disappearance of the King (Sean Bean), and who tells the rare person who asks that the girl is off her rocker. The Queen, of course, has a magical mirror that lets her know that all is not well; she’s broke, and her incessant greediness and need to be the most beautiful is coming at a steeper price. Everybody who hasn’t lived under a rock all their lives knows the rest of the story, that Snow White will escape and fall in with the Seven Dwarves, and that a handsome Prince Charming will help save her. That’s not entirely the case, here, however, as Singh and writers Jason Keller and Melissa Mallack pierce the familiar with sharp wit, surprising twists and amazing imagination.
Take the mirror for instance. When the queen enters it, it’s as if everything turns to water, and the next thing you know she’s being risen diagonally out of a vast ocean and transported into a bamboo shelter, in which resides the spirit of the mirror (also Roberts, resplendent in ivory). Both the effect and the visuals are out of an ethereal Asian fantasy. Take also the introduction of the Dwarves, who appear as impossibly limber—bandits vaulting across a mysterious snowy wood on accordion-bellowed stilts. It’s both scary and exhilarating, not to mention completely fantastical. Much of the wit is delivered in priceless one-liners by Roberts, who appears to be having a ball playing against type.
It’s hard not to compare Roberts with Leah Parilla, the evil Queen/Regina from Once Upon a Time, who dishes out nasty zingers with zestful relish. Some younger audience members may be confused that, thanks to Hollywood competition (the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman starring Kristin Stewart), there are not one but two evil queens bent on destroying not one but two Snow Whites.
The Audrey Hepburn-like Lily Collins (daughter of Phil and an obviously beautiful mother) is the epitome of fairytale princesses, albeit one who chafes at the idea of being rescued like just another damsel in distress and who skillfully handles a dagger and a sword. The Prince in question, one Alcott of Valencia (Armie Hammer), is suitably dreamy, but he keeps getting outwitted by the Dwarves, and at one point, falls victim to the Queen’s spells, resulting in his spending a good deal of the movie acting like a frisky pup. Hammer, who was so effective in The Social Network and last year’s otherwise dreary J. Edgar, is a revelation, proving that he’s more than just another pretty face; he’s a gifted comic actor. The movie is a visual Candyland, with splendid and over-the-top costumes (the Queen’s gowns with their voluminous skirts could take out entire villages, like a silk tsunami) and set pieces, but it’s the narrative and how it’s delivered that really send this latest variation on a childhood favorite to another level.