Directed by Tarsem Singh
After breaking into features with the grisly if visually stunning serial-killer thriller The Cell, Tarsem Singh spent years shooting The Fall, drawing a sharp line between his commercial career (literally: he shot the movie on the backs of many ad-directing gigs) and his personal sensibility. Back in the world now, he's ready to show off his Hollywood chops; Mirror Mirror is his second movie in six months, following the Clash of the Titans-y Immortals, and neither feels as personal as The Fall.
Then again, Singh—who has used no fewer than three different names over the course of his directing career, at least two of which appear in the Mirror Mirror credits—may not be an especially personal filmmaker. He has a distinctive style, to be certain: ornate, painterly compositions focusing on elaborate costumes by Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka (who passed away earlier this year; Mirror Mirror is dedicated to her) and dreamlike imagery. His interest in storytelling, though, is more thematic than practical: his movies often address the way people tell each other stories and make up worlds.
This extends, however tenuously, to his Snow White redux Mirror Mirror. It's no cleverer about upending fairy-tale conventions than a Shrek picture, but it's far less smug about it, and less craven in seeking in-joke approval. The movie opens with catch-up narration by the Evil Queen (Julia Roberts) via several styles of animation at once, a kaleidoscope of exposition depicting the basic fairy-tale set-up: a kind king with a kind daughter marries a beautiful but disagreeable woman; the king disappears and the queen presides over his kingdom. The daughter grows into Snow White (Lily Collins), whom the Evil Queen despises for her beauty and sends to her death. She escapes, meets up with seven dwarfs, a prince gets involved, balls are thrown, more fanciful costumes are donned, etc., etc.
The story is half fairy-tale empowerment, half farce, and Singh's mixing of the two isn't always fluid; he's better at painting lovely pictures than cutting them together into a sequence that really moves. But Mirror Mirror has a lot of charm and a surprisingly skillful tone of light humor: not too sappy and not too snarky, like a Fractured Fairytale on Rocky & Bullwinkle. Julia Roberts, who usually makes me squirm, makes her persona's haughty self-satisfaction explicit, and her disdain of Snow White and lust for Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) has an amusing sense of entitlement—she desires Alcott not just because Armie Hammer looks great without a shirt, though that is a running gag, but because she's blown her money on lavish parties and needs to re-marry richer (Snow fails to capitalize on this with an Occupy Kingdom movement).
Alcott finds himself smitten with Snow and flummoxed by the Queen; Hammer plays him as just a few degrees too rigidly princely to fully comprehend the Queen's machinations, and the actor does an admirable job resisting any urge to go full-on handsome boob. The bickering dwarves, including Danny Woodburn (Kramer's pal Mickey from Seinfeld!) and Jordan Prentice (from In Bruges!), refashioned to resemble Robin Hood's merry men, are a lot of fun, too, training Snow White to externalize her sunny feminist goodness. Collins looks a bit like Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth, but with the crucial addition of appearing to have a good time.
In addition to Collins (and her gorgeous costumes) and Hammer (and his sometime lack thereof), the whole movie is easy on the eyes, even by lofty Tarsem standards. The sets sometimes look blatantly fabricated—Mirror Mirror appears far less CG-intensive than Immortals—but that near-fake quality also lends the film a tactile richness.
The high visual style and charming performances provide suitable distraction from a narrative jumble, which lets a few plot points slip away into the woods, and tries to bind the aforementioned reference points (Shrek, Robin Hood, a dash of Burton's Alice in Wonderland) with a generic message that I think was "believe!" (in yourself and/or the power of kindness and/or love) but could also have been "don't be mean to dwarfs!" or possibly "you should probably make specific inquiries about the cost of magic that your talking mirror keeps going on about." The Fall was only slightly more coherent, but it summoned an emotional rawness to match the grandeur of its imagery. Mirror Mirror is inarguably less grand. But as commercial fairy-tale moviemaking, it's an unexpected little delight.
Opens March 30