Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror is a darn sight better than its trailer makes it look. For that matter, it’s a darn sight better than most of the films labelled “family” these days. If it isn’t anywhere near in the same league as Tarsem’s The Fall (2006), well, that’s not very surprising. The Fall is a special film—the kind that maybe comes along once in a career. It was an utterly personal work, and made without any regard to the whims of the movie marketplace. Mirror Mirror is a far more commercial proposition. What’s surprising is just how clearly Singh has left his fingerprints all over the film despite this.
Of course, one of the major charms of The Fall lay in the decision to completely eschew CGI in the creation of its effects and settings. That certainly cannot be claimed about Mirror Mirror, but I’d be willing to bet that a good many of the film’s effects are achieved by the same old jiggery-pokery filmmakers have been using to flim-flam viewers since shortly after the invention of movies. In fact, the story’s animated, puppet show-like prologue is presented on a kind of zoetrope-like contraption. And, the Queen’s (Julia Roberts) entrance into the mirror is straight out of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950). Beyond that, on-set photos reveal that the same can be said of a good deal of the interior production design, so that most of the CGI seems to be relegated to the more elaborate effects and the bigger exteriors. So, all in all, there’s still some sense of a hand-made movie here.
The idea, of course, is a stylish, playfully updated version of the Snow White story, and Mirror Mirror generally succeeds in its aims. It reworks the story just enough to be a little fresh, but even when it seems like it has side-stepped one of the most familiar aspects of the story, that shows up as a nice punchline to the whole proceedings. The embellishments are frequently clever. The whole thing is actually closer to the fairy tale than the Disney version, though some of the darker details (like the Queen wanting her victim’s entrails) are softened with gentler comedy. The idea of the Seven Dwarves here owes more than a little to Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981), but the concept of them passing themselves off as giants with the aid of accordion stilts is an amusing notion—and one that plays even better than it sounds.
It’s not that Mirror Mirror is a great picture—or is even as good as it could have been. That’s partly the fault of the casting. And, no, I don’t mean Julia Roberts, though I suspect the poster with her at her Julia Roberts-est is doing the film no favors. Roberts is quite good in the movie, and she seems to be having a good time playing on the fact that she’s no longer in the ingenue category. She does not, however, make the Queen antiseptically sexless—as witness the bit when she makes Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) put a shirt on so she can think. Hammer is good, too, even if he’s handed one broad gag that’s close to cringe-inducing. And there’s nothing wrong with Nathan Lane as the Brighton, the Queen’s largely inept toadie. But I’m sad to say that Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) is never more than OK as Snow White, and that’s a definite drawback.
The trailer makes the film look cheap—the film itself is anything but that—and it makes the humor look broader than it is. Oh, sure, there’s a fair amount of pretty broad stuff, but there are subtler moments, too. Nothing about the trailer even hints that there’ll be a gag based on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis buried in this movie. Yet the film generally remembers to play to a family audience—and for once we have a film that actually is family friendly and not moronic. The screenplay—or Tarsem—is responsible for avoiding the usual bouts of what the MPAA started classifying as “bodily humor” with Osmosis Jones back in 2001. In other words, it incorporates seven comedic dwarves and not a single one of them suffers from flatulence. There should probably be a special award for that. Now, if only someone would give Tarsem another project that’s wholly his own. Rated PG for some fantasy action and mild rude humor.