It’s easy to roll your eyes at the endless fairy-tale “re-imaginings” Hollywood thrust upon us each year, but not even the credited authors of many of them, the Brothers Grimm, could claim them as original works. No, stories of lore are but a never-ending game of Chinese whispers, passed down through time from one raconteur to another, each adding their own personal flair to the fable. In Mirror Mirror, the whisperer is Indian director Tarsem Singh (The Fall), and although his account of Snow White isn’t about to be crowned the fairest of them all, a vibrant visual palate and sweet sense of humour ensures it’s no bad apple either.
Parents should know that Mirror Mirror is unmistakably the more Disney of the two Snow White adaptations being released in cinemas this year, distinguishing itself from the gritty Grimm-ness Snow White and the Huntsman is shaping up to be. Lily Collins (Abduction) stars as Miss White, the rightful heir to her late father’s kingdom according to everyone but her vain stepmother, Queen Clementianna (Julia Roberts; Larry Crowne). To remain the fairest of them all, the Queen keeps Snow locked away in her room, spreading rumours that she’s a spineless recluse incapable of reigning. Snow, however, decides to venture outside the palace walls on her 18th birthday, bumping into the dashing Prince Andrew (Armie Hammer; The Social Network), who the Queen hopes to wed for his broad shoulders and deep pockets. But when the Prince falls for Snow instead, the Queen demands that her snivelling footman Brighton (Nathan Lane; Astro Boy) dispose of Snow in the woods. There, she is rescued by seven stilted dwarves – as in, dwarves on stilts – who train her in the art of combat and thievery so that she can steal back her crown and restore the kingdom to its former glory. But only on the condition she cooks dinner first…
Despite keeping the core story intact, screenwriters Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller do deviate on occasion to lend the tale a modern touch, the most notable being the reversal of gender stereotypes. But even though Snow White doesn’t actually fall into an apple-induced coma this time, Lily Collins’ stuporous performance does make you wonder. With her wide chestnut eyes and porcelain skin, Collins is a perfect fit aesthetically, but her implied transition from shy shut-in to poised princess is nowhere to be seen in her delivery. Beauty is only half of what the role requires, and in Collins’ place, an actress like Emily Browning or Saoirse Ronan could have bought some much-needed bite to boot.
But this is really Julia Roberts’ film, or at least it should have been. With pitch-perfect (and kid-friendly) snark, she elevates every scene she’s in, and her cheeky narration of the hilariously offbeat preamble sets the scene for a skewed Wicked-like retelling that the film gradually shies away from. Playing up on their 20-year age gap, Roberts is also a lot more fun to watch fawn over Armie Hammer, who with his gallant yet goofy swagger, could very well ensure Brendan Fraser never works again. It’s also great to see (and hear) The Lion King’s Nathan Lane once more, whose iconic Disney voice reinforces the film’s animated charms.
It must be said that those hoping for a spiritual successor to Singh’s modern fairytale masterpiece The Fall will be disappointed by the relatively short leash the director is working with here, especially the over-reliance of CGI and a screenplay that lacks any real nuance. Still, to say that Singh doesn’t bring any flavour to the familiar would be to discount Mirror Mirror’s gorgeous mise-en-scène, from the majestic and painterly sets to the wonderfully ostentatious costumes. Singh is also a master of striking and seamless scene transitions, the most impressive being the Queen’s skewed entrance into the realm of the titular Mirror. There still isn’t a scene that compares to the breathtaking beauty of The Fall’s remarkably CGI-free vistas, but after the director being restricted to the murky hues of last year’s disappointing Immortals, it’s an absolute pleasure to see Singh play with colour again.
It’s his touch that makes Mirror Mirror a tale worth huddling around to hear.