Perhaps in honor of the 200th anniversary of Grimm's Fairytales, this movie season is offering two very different retellings of the Snow White story. At first, I thought that the different aesthetics and themes presented by Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman (at least based on previews) could make for an interesting contrast, assuming the stories really did do different things with the original tale. After seeing, Mirror Mirror, however, I'm not sure we really needed two Snow Whites this year.
Mirror Mirror presents Snow White through the framework of a question of who the story is really about. The Queen (Julia Roberts) craves attention and admiration and keeps Snow White (Lily Collins) locked in her bedroom for fear that the girl will upstage her. Snow's father reared her to be a leader, hoping one day she could take over the kingdom and rule it well. He died when she was a child, however, and her stepmother quickly ran the kingdom into the ground, taxing the villagers into abject poverty in order to fund her own vanity and lavish parties. When handsome and charming Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) arrives in the kingdom, the Queen hopes she can use charm or magic to get him to marry her and solve her financial stresses. Snow, on the other hand, hopes the prince can use his army to help her take back the kingdom and restore it to prosperity. After Snow steals Prince Alcott's attention at the ball, the Queen orders her faithful servant Brighton (Nathan Lane) to take her out to the woods and kill her. Frightened of the beast that lurks in the woods and moved by Snow's beauty and innocence, Brighton lets her go. In the woods, Snow is taken in by a troupe of bandits (the dwarves) who teach her how to thieve and just may be able to help her get her kingdom back too.
Not surprisingly, Julia Roberts is by far the best part of this movie. She plays the Queen's vanity and evilness so effortlessly that it's actually fun to watch her be cruel. Her hatred of Snow is written as annoyance and the way she treats her step-daughter dismissively, belittling her and whittling away at her self-confidence is compelling and evil precisely because it is so true-to-life. In contrast, Lily Collins looks like she's trying too hard to be charming. The filmmakers clearly want us to view her as the second coming of Audrey Hepburn, but overall her behavior as the ingenue is not endearing enough to make me want her to beat the Queen. Armie Hammer is handsome, charming, and really pretty boring.
While the film is largely a straightforward retelling of Snow White but with an empowering ending, I think the writers overdid the mythology of the kingdom. Without much explanation, we are supposed to remember that the Queen has use of some magic represented by a crescent moon necklace, that there's actually a beast in the forest, and that the world on the other side of the magic mirror is a representation of the magic in the Queen herself—but using it comes at a cost. There's a lot of moving pieces to the magic in the film and none of them are really thoroughly explained or consistently portrayed. It was just too much. Less magic, but presented really well would have been so much better.
My favorite part of the film was the way it took up depictions of beauty and anti-aging regiments. In one scene the Queen undergoes "the treatment" before a ball with Prince Alcott. Watching her have bird excrement painted on her face, leeches, worms, and bees used on her skin, as well as a host of other gross applications, raised questions about the devices and products we use to stay pretty in a comical, visually stimulating way.
While Mirror Mirror could certainly be a fun family film (my 8 year-old sister liked it), it's not really doing anything special or interesting in its retelling of the fairytale. When it has moments that could be creative or insightful they are subverted to the sillier aspects of the film. The ending is so heavy-handed and preachy is verged on tedium. Pardon me for this, but I have to say, Mirror Mirror is not the fairest of them all. 2.5/5 stars
Mirror Mirror was directed by Tarsem Singh and written by Jason Keller and Melisa Wallack. It runs 106 minutes and is rated PG for some fantasy action and mild rude humor.