Since Disney has long cornered the market on fairy tale adaptations, it’s actually hard to know what to expect from one that isn’t full of singing birds and pixie dust. After watching director Tarsem Singh take on Greek mythology with The Immortals, I was willing to bet that his adaptation of the Snow White story would be over-the-top opulent and grandiose. While he was true to that trademark style, there was also a lot of playful humour in Mirror, Mirror that came as a delightful surprise. Also as you might expect from a new adaptation, a few of the conventions of the story have been whimsically reinvented. The seven dwarves are now bandits (there’s even an under-the-breath jab at how it’s more lucrative than being miners) who jump their victims wearing cleverly designed spring-stilts. The wicked queen now walks through her mirror into a secret hideaway where her mirror-counterpart is actually a magical spirit who uses sorcery to do her bidding. Finally, there is the requisite post-modern discussion about whether or not the damsel needs saving by the prince. I won’t spoil how that is resolved, but between the queen as scheming gold-digger and a Snow White living with (and cooking for) the dwarves, the sexual politics of this movie become a bit messy. However, that argument is clearly not the point of this film, just part of its contemporary baggage. This movie’s primary flavour is still sweet and light as meringue.
Every good fantasy film needs a wonderful visual style, and the lion’s share of that comes from the amazing costume designs of frequent Tarsem collaborator, Eiko Ishioka (whose passing earlier this year is acknowledged in the end credits). Julia Roberts, as the evil queen, looks impressive in billowing gold dresses with ruffles and frills galore. Lily Collins, as Snow White, goes from pretty porcelain doll to one of the most stylish pirates I’ve seen, transformed by her outfits and hairstyles alone. Of course, the capper is the requisite costume ball, where Roberts appears resplendent in a peacock costume of bold ruby, and Collins chases away many Bjork-inspired nightmares as a virginal white swan. Aside from the beautiful costumes, there are also the humourous ones, from Prince Alcott’s Wonderland-esque March hare, to the courtiers dressed as a dancing menagerie (including one ridiculous-yet-cleverly-designed walrus). Behind the costumes, the scenery and buildings were both elegant and whimsical. The queen’s mystical hideaway is composed of two huts and an ostrich-headed column which looks from the right angle as the entire bird. The palace is full of art-nouveau curves and filigree that all blends together beautifully. Suffice it to say, the art direction of this film is worth seeing and taking note of.
While a lot of attention was clearly spent on the look of the film, sometimes that can also suck the life out of it, leaving behind a gilded yet lifeless diorama. Thankfully the script and performances kept everything lively. Roberts is great as the strong yet insecure queen. When the handsome prince (played by The Social Network’s Armie Hammer) comes to her kingdom, she turns royal cougar and discretely maneuvers her claws into pouncing position. She and sidekick/toadie Brighton (played by the always funny Nathan Lane) have a nice master-servant dynamic going and their dialogue (while often anachronistic and sarcastic) is fun to listen to. The seven dwarves are also a source of clever humour, not because they’re short (an obvious and cliche joke that they spit upon quite early). They each have personalities (to suit their new names) and a wonderful camaraderie as a bunch of outcast brothers reluctant at first to accept a beautiful (and tall) young woman into their midst.
I confess that I too found it a bit challenging to embrace Lily Collins (daughter of 80s drummer/pop musician Phil Collins) as Snow White. At first glance, I’m embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t get past her rather bold eyebrows. Since her character started out very naive and timid, she became the picture of wimpiness. However, after she met the dwarves and started to come into her own, she changed her look, got up a bit more courage and stood a little taller, then her character became a lot more fully formed and energetic. She shares a flirty dueling scene with the prince as well as an awkward but romantic kiss. By the end, I echoed the sentiments of dwarf and prince alike that I had become completely charmed.
This movie has received decidedly mixed reviews, but I can only guess that’s because people had different expectations of the film. Maybe some expected something a bit more Disney (you should re-watch the animated classic), or others might have expected something more grown up (to you I suggest waiting for Snow White and the Huntsman coming later in the summer). For me with very little preconceptions about seeing this movie beyond the eye candy it would bring, I was pleasantly surprised and had a good time. (4 out of 5)