'Mirror Mirror' Review: Tarsem Revamps Snow White For Media-Savvy Kids, With Mixed Results

I don't like to talk about movie marketing when reviewing a film. The trailer isn't the movie. Each has completely different aims, and judging a movie based on a trailer is the wrong road to take. But in the case of Tarsem's slightly modern, very kid-oriented Snow White story Mirror Mirror, the trailers are worth mentioning. They sold something like a Lifetime movie — a stilted, ungainly romance. Yet I was pleasantly surprised to see that the film proper is laced with the imaginative visuals that one expects from Tarsem, but also flashes of cleverness in action scenes and modern, media-aware dialogue that should be glaringly anachronistic, but works more often than not. Mirror Mirror is clearly a film for kids, but it aspires to please adults as well, and features just enough zing to do so, at least occasionally.

Tarsem opens with a gorgeous CG animated puppet show detailing the history of the kingdom in which the story takes place. The King was a good man but disappeared on a combat expedition into the nearby dark forest. The narrator of this tale turns out to be the Queen (Julia Roberts), a conniving and selfish woman whose machinations put the kingdom in her hands. She has essentially stolen the kingdom from the rightful princess Snow White (Lily Collins) and has brought the land to the brink of financial ruin thanks to her indulgent spending.

If you sense a sort of political allegory creeping in from the margins (can't wait for the Fox News counter-attack) you'd be right to wonder where things go next, but Tarsem and screenwriters Melissa Wallack & Jason Keller don't veer much further into economic satire. Recapping the plot does suggest a pointed attack: Mirror Mirror traces the arrival of a wealthy Prince (Armie Hammer) with whom Snow White falls in love and the Queen falls into a sort of financial lust. Rather than killing Snow as commanded, the queen's primary servant (Nathan Lane) leaves her in the dark forest, where she meets a group of outcast bandit dwarves, and a near-revolution is born. But satire isn't the intent; those trappings seem as if they're simply meant to modernize the tale.

Roberts, Tarsem and the script pin the queen down as selfish and petty, and while that often does add up to evil in the real world, in an exaggerated fantasy like this it doesn't feel like enough. She does try to have Snow killed, but otherwise her evil tends towards snark rather than a snarl. Armie Hammer's Prince is more heel than Prince Charming, but he does everything he can to make it work, and I found his combination of smarm and charm to be workable enough. Nathan Lane turns out to be a sly scene-stealer, particularly when detailing the aftereffects of an ugly curse. And the dwarves throw a bit of pleasant chaos into the tightly-controlled action, with Jordan Prentice (In Bruges), Martin Klebba (Project X, the Pirates of the Caribbean series) and Danny Woodburn (Seinfeld) standing out.

As we've seen from other Tarsem films (The Cell, The Fall, Immortals) much of the narrative framework is meant to support wild visual flourishes, rather than the other way around. The costumes, by the late Eiko Ishioka, are lavish, if a bit restrained from her past experiments with Tarsem. The sets, all built on stages, are quite lovely, and some of the visual designs are worth the price of the ticket. The mirror of the title is a portal that transports the queen to a witch's hut in the middle of a lake, the dwarves first appear as a band of spring-loaded samurai, and the beast that haunts the dark forest is a strange and oddly touching amalgamation of animal parts. The effects are clearly not top-dollar efforts, but they work just fine, thanks in part to the overall feeling of artifice that is derived from the stage-bound production.

Those designs are well and good, but Mirror Mirror isn't quite a perfect sum of its parts. Yes, there are great flights of fancy, some wonderful designs and genuine comedy. But I couldn't shake the feeling that Tarsem hadn't pushed any of the film's elements quite far enough. As suggested above, the queen isn't particularly evil, the prince isn't particularly stalwart, and while Snow is meant to be an upright role model for younger viewers, it takes a long time for this version to really show her mettle. The characters feel pale and overshadowed by the world around them.

Developing from that sense of restraint is a frequent slip from into a strangely flat tone. With sets, costumes and scenarios as fantasy-laden as those put forth here, any lapse in timing or action feels ringingly hollow. The pace threatens to trip to a halt here and there, with people just standing around in unreal locales. A pattern quickly emerges: a few jokes and scenes hit with good effect, then a lull sets in, then the pulse quickens slightly once more. Mirror Mirror rarely achieves energy levels that are particularly high; it coasts more often than it charges forward.

And yet I did laugh at many glimmers of self-awareness. I don't know why the Queen is narrating the backstory but Roberts' performance is drily amusing as she does so. Should the Prince be as modern as he is about stories featuring princes and princesses are meant to end? Perhaps not, but he gets a laugh when insisting that this sort of thing has been focus-grouped enough that we know how it has to end. And, hell, why not end the movie with a Bollywood-influenced dance sequence? As with so many other aspects of the film I would have liked to see that media-savvy impulse pushed a bit further, but Mirror Mirror really is just a softball for kids. As such it entertains, but not with anything like the enduring allure of the Grimm tale that inspires it.

/Film score: 6.5 out of 10