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Mirror Mirror

Of the two competing Snow White films released this year, I was honestly more interested in seeing Mirror Mirror. It had a better director, a far more interesting cast, and the first promo image showed a lot of potential for the film’s visual style. This stood in direct contrast to the first Snow White and the Huntsman trailer, which raised a ton of red flags for me.

But then came the trailer for Mirror Mirror. And the reviews. And the box office take. By all appearances, this movie was a mediocrity. Throw in the fact that the film’s godawful ad campaign had been haunting me for several months and there was no way I’d be seeing this picture in theaters.

Instead, I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman. I thought it was a very beautiful yet fatally flawed movie, and most critics appeared to agree. Nevertheless, SWATH was the clear winner in terms of box office, grossing nearly $400 million worldwide. And then, just as it looked like Universal had a franchise-spawning hit on their hands, the scandal happened.

On one side was Rupert Sanders, 41, a first-time director with two kids to Liberty Ross (who, I might add, appeared briefly in the film as Snow’s mother). On the other side was Kristen Stewart, 22, a young actress with a multibillion-dollar franchise and a very high-profile relationship to Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson. And the two of them went and slept with each other on the set of SWATH.

The fallout was disastrous for everyone involved. Stewart got the worst of the media attention and Pattinson of course broke up with her, but she still has a devoted fanbase, a budding filmography, another Twilight film, and the upcoming On the Road to her credit. That’s far more than Sanders has, considering that SWATH may very well be the only feature-length movie he’ll ever make, and Ross still hasn’t let him move back in. Ross may actually be better off without him, since her career is now just starting to take off. But I digress.

The point being that the 2012 Battle of the Snow White Films is over, and everyone lost (I called it!). The dust has cleared and the promotions for both films are now a distant memory. Mirror Mirror is out on DVD and SWATH is set for a home video release in just a few days. I think the time has finally come to sate my curiosity (no pun intended, I promise) and see what Tarsem Singh’s crew brought to the table.

We may as well start with the obvious: Singh brought his incredible gift for visuals. I know I talked at great length about how beautiful SWATH was, but that film was more — for lack of a better word — photorealistic. It was much darker and grittier, with an emphasis on making everything look lifelike. It was a fantasy film made in imitation of the Lord of the Rings films and the Harry Potter movies. Mirror Mirror, by comparison, goes 90 miles an hour in the opposite direction.

From start to finish, Singh put his considerable visual talents toward creating a fairy tale kingdom that couldn’t possibly exist in our world. The costumes are all very opulent, the sets are spectacular, and the effects all look very dreamlike. The end result is a gorgeous place where everyone has some kind of internal magic, animals can be friendly, true love conquers all, and people sing and dance in the streets when they’re happy. This is a facsimile of the make-believe land we visited as children, which makes all manner of sense: “Snow White” is, after all, a children’s story.

That said, there are times when the movie gets way too rash with its whimsy. There are multiple times when the film actually calls attention to plot holes and expects to get away with it just because it’s all so fantastic. In fact, the proceedings often get a little too fantastic for the film’s own good. A key example is in the Evil Queen’s beauty treatments, which don’t really contribute anything except for two minutes of “what the fuck?” There’s also the swan dress that Snow wears to a costume ball, which makes Bjork’s attempt look sensible by comparison.

Speaking of which, it bears mentioning that Lily Collins makes for a phenomenal Snow. She’s attractive, charming, and compassionate, the type of girl who could melt your heart with a smile and immediately get her way with nothing more than a doe-eyed pout. Basically, she’s everything you’d want a fairy tale princess to be. Of course, spending her adolescent years in a gilded cage at the behest of her evil stepmother has made her very naive, but in an endearing way.

Likewise, Armie Hammer is pitch-perfect as the film’s Prince Alcott (read: Charming). He’s handsome, he’s dashing, he’s always looking for adventure and proud to a fault. Of course, it must be said that he’s a little thick-headed, but only just enough for comedy’s sake. He also has some very sweet moments with Snow, which naturally helps a great deal. But then the film goes and abuses Hammer’s talent for the sake of that godawful love potion story point.

Then we have the dwarves, who are done extraordinarily well in this film. I thought it sounded a little gimmicky when the dwarves were cast entirely with midget actors, I confess, even though some of them (particularly Danny Woodburn and Martin Klebba) have nicely established themselves as respectable character actors. Mercifully, none of these seven actors turn out to be slouches, and they all get a surprising amount to work with.

The dwarves are all shown as distinct characters, they work wonders as comic relief, they make a very cohesive team, they first meet Snow at the end of the first act, and they’re established in the story even earlier than that. It’s amazing how Mirror Mirror so wonderfully succeeded where SWATH so utterly failed. Then again, this is probably emblematic of a greater difference between the two films.

Unlike SWATH, the filmmakers behind Mirror Mirror don’t spend nearly as much screentime adding onto the core fable. They don’t try to establish two distinct love interests for Snow, they don’t introduce a village of people who’ve slashed their own faces, and there’s no ridiculous prophecy about Snow White being some Chosen One. This is probably why Mirror Mirror is a good 20 minutes shorter. There are some relatively brief additions, to be sure, but this film is far and away more focused on the “Snow White” story we all know and love.

Easily the biggest deviation from the established story is in how the film handles the whole “poisoned apple” story point. It’s a huge departure from what we know and expect, though the question of why Snow would be stupid enough to eat an apple given to her by a stranger is a tricky one to address. As bold as this movie’s solution was, it’s still better than the wretched and insulting method used in SWATH.

(Side note: Season 1 of “Once Upon a Time” did a much better job with the poisoned apple than either of the two movies. Just saying.)

Speaking of comparisons between “Snow White” films, let’s talk about the Evil Queen. Charlize Theron was the undisputed champion of her film, and Julia Roberts was one of the reasons I was so interested at first in seeing Mirror Mirror. After so many years as America’s Sweetheart, I was very intrigued to see Roberts go outside her comfort zone and sink her teeth into a villainous role. I really should’ve known better.

To be clear, Roberts certainly plays the Queen as a colossal bitch. She’s deceitful, she’s vain, she’s oppressive, and she maintains an opulent lifestyle all for herself without any care for the people she’s taxing into oblivion. That said, I could never bring myself to believe that she was truly eeeeeevil. She didn’t strike me as dangerous, just incredibly self-centered. Furthermore, even when Roberts tried injecting a bit of malice into her role, there was still a sense of playfulness to her performance that didn’t quite work.

To compare: Roberts’ Evil Queen kept Snow locked up in her bedroom for a decade, where the princess could have all of her toys and dresses and other such luxuries. Theron’s Evil Queen kept Snow chained in a dungeon and left her there to spend her adolescent years rotting away. Moreover, we saw on multiple occasions that Theron had absolutely no problem slaughtering anyone who crossed her. She killed fair maidens by the dozen with her own bare hands, for Grimm’s sake. Could Roberts’ Queen seriously kill someone on her own, without help from anyone else? Sorry, not buying it.

To be fair, I will admit that the film was going for a much more comedic bent. There’s no way Theron’s depiction of the Queen would have fit in this picture. But is it too much to ask for something in between? This movie could easily have worked within the limits of a PG rating and still delivered a legitimately threatening villain. Disney does it all the time.

However, I will give the movie credit for this much: Julia Roberts also plays the magic mirror. That was such an obvious move that it goes right back around to being brilliant. In every adaptation of “Snow White” that I’ve ever seen, the mirror always spoke in some strange voice through some strange face. The thought never occurred to me that of course the mirror would act as the Queen’s reflection. It makes such perfect sense that I’m frankly amazed nobody thought of it before. Of course, it also helps that Roberts plays the mirror with an eerie calm that contrasts quite nicely against her depiction of the Queen.

Before moving on, I’d like to make one final note regarding the Queen. She opens the film with a monologue to exposit the film’s backstory, doing so with flowery storybook prose that’s occasionally punctuated by snarky comments (“They called her Snow White. Probably because that was the most pretentious name they could come up with.”). At first, I thought that this might have been an implicit statement against cynicism. It makes sense that the Queen would find any excuse to poke fun at a fairy tale and break suspension of disbelief, because she’s evil. Then again, I’m not sure the filmmakers were that clever.

The movie mostly stays in the old-fashioned storybook mindset, and that is good for the occasional self-aware chuckle (the prince’s gleaming teeth, for example). However, there are far too many times when the mood breaks. All too often, the characters will have dialogue or line deliveries that feel much too modern (the Queen’s line about “crinkles” comes immediately to mind). These hiccups in tone are all about as inconvenient and painful, yet mercifully brief, as a pothole on a freeway.

Getting back to the cast, there’s the matter of poor, poor Nathan Lane. He’s on hand to play the Queen’s executive bootlicker, and Lane is so obviously slumming it that watching him is almost painful. Moreover, Lane really needs to stick to Broadway; his hammy overacting shtick might serve him well with an audience that’s 50 feet away, but it does him no favors when there’s a camera in his face. With all of that said, I will admit that there’s one thing this movie got right in regard to his character: Brighton also serves as the movie’s Huntsman. If the movie was going to give the Queen a toady while also keeping the story’s Huntsman, then this was absolutely the right move. After all, it would be bad enough for the Queen to have an unfunny and incompetent lackey — the last thing we need is for her to have two.

Finally, I must give kudos to Sean Bean, who injects a tremendous amount of heart and gravitas into a role that only lasts for something like two scenes.

All told, Mirror Mirror definitely wasn’t the trainwreck I expected. There were a lot of glaring problems, to be sure, particularly in the inconsistent tone and the villains’ presentation. Even so, this movie is heavily redeemed by some solid performances by Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, and the entire cast of dwarves. Of course, it also helps that the film looks absolutely gorgeous and there were a lot of great creative touches here and there. The movie is also quite funnier than I expected, due in large part to the fact that so many awful jokes in the trailer never made it to the final cut.

The movie isn’t perfect, but it’s enjoyable for what it is. Even so, I’m glad I waited for the DVD release to see this one. Somehow, I don’t think a full-price theatrical ticket would have been worth it.

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