You're asking for trouble when you take on Snow White. The word “quixotic” comes to mind. Walt Disney, after all, turned the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tale into the very first animated feature in 1937. A few made-for-TV productions aside, filmmakers have refrained from climbing this snow-capped mountain. Why mess with a classic, even in live action?
The answer, according to the uniquely stylish Tarsem Singh (The Cell, last year's Immortals), is why not...especially when you can poke fun at the genre in the process? Mirror Mirror is pure gossamer, a kid-friendly romantic comedy so featherweight that you may try not to breathe too hard for fear of having the whole thing wither away into the celluloid ether. The film also possesses an impish sense of humor that prevents it from going too far down the rabbit hole of preciousness. My expectations were so low that I was prepared to cast the first stone. I then proceeded to fall under Singh's giddy spell.
The director's first shrewd decision was, not only to nab Julia Roberts to play the evil queen, but to have her character narrate the opening montage from her own skewed point of view. (This is the rare children's film that leaves you wanting more voice over narration.) The sequence is a CGI-driven treat that, much like the rest of Mirror Mirror, avoids sensory overload while elegantly setting up the story.
The Queen, as she is referred to in the film's credits, is hardly Disney's cruel, stone-cold ruler with those Bette Davis eyes. In this retelling, she's a vain egomaniac who has frivolously emptied her kingdom's coffers after her husband's unfortunate “disappearance.” Images of Marie Antoinette danced over my head. All that's left for a fresh start is to dispose of her stepdaughter. “Snow would have to do what snow does best,” muses Roberts. “Snow would have to fall.” The titular looking glass is actually a portal that takes the Queen to a floating cabin Stargate-style to confer with the real Mirror, also played by Roberts.
Singh's second casting coup comes in the waif-like form of English actress Lily Collins. (My, what big eyebrows she has.) She imbues Snow White with the demure purity the role calls for. The way Singh's camera lingers on her serene gaze brings to mind Audrey Hepburn circa Roman Holiday. The plot kicks into gear when Margaret, the royal baker (a nearly unrecognizable Mare Winningham), advises Snow on her eighteenth birthday to go take a look at the toll the Queen's whims has taken on her subjects. Out in the woods, Snow runs into the dashing Prince Alcott of Valencia (Armie Hammer), who has been strung upside down from a tree branch, shirtless, by some forest giants. Or so he claims.
Cue the dwarfs, who are no longer mine workers, but ostracized minorities who steal from the rich to, well, fill their bellies. Their secret weapon? Accordion stilts. With names like Butcher, Chuckles and Napoleon, these badass munchkins don't quite cut the iconic figure of their predecessors, but they still provide the requisite comic relief. It's up to Snow to join forces with these pint-size rebels to bring about a regime change. Occupy the kingdom, if you will. But can she prevent her wicked stepmom from snagging Alcott as her next ex-husband?
Mirror Mirror is at its most beguiling when depicting the trial-and-error courtship between Snow and Alcott. Hammer, in particular, is a game physical comedian. His debonair touch recalls Cary Elwes and Brendan Fraser in their ability to fuse good looks with comedic chops. The statuesque heartthrob can do no wrong in my book. The unlikely couple is aided by screenwriters Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller's contemporary, playfully self-aware dialogue, a modern spin on the material which Singh tempers by shooting most of the film in a soundstage. Adding to the theatricality is costume designer Eiko Ishioka's drop-dead wardrobe. Roberts' crimson peacock-themed ball gown, for instance, is quite the showstopper. Ishioka, who won a 1992 Oscar for Bram Stoker's Dracula, passed away from pancreatic cancer earlier this year, but her work here is a fittingly outlandish capper to an exceptional career. The bar has thus been raised for this June's Snow White and the Huntsman, a grittier, more grown-up take on the fairy tale starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron. (Can't say I'm looking forward to that.)
Call Mirror Mirror a freshly retro affair. Singh doesn't set out to reinvent the wheel, but he's made a charmer that joins films like Ella Enchanted and Stardust in debunking the tenets of princess tales with effortless panache. It's cinematic cotton candy, and yes, it packs a hell of a sugar rush.