A pretty good unofficial rule of thumb is that if a movie’s trailer uses the phrase, “Say hello to my leedle friend!” as a laugh line, the movie will be terrible, especially if the punchline is that the little friend is a dwarf. You should know, therefore, that the teaser for Mirror Mirror misled us — the line does not appear anywhere in the movie. That’s not to say there aren’t jokes thoroughly inappropriate for Snow White: Anachronisms about such things as focus groups and contemporary neologisms like “pinky swear!” abound, and this may be the only movie ever to feature a casual jape about grasshopper buggery (not a euphemism, folks; actual sexual assault by a grazing insect). The tone is set early, as Julia Roberts, in her role as the unnamed evil Queen, spins a zoetrope to let us know that the movie is aware it’s a movie, and tells us the story of Snow White’s birth, as enacted by CGI porcelain dolls with real human eyes (creepy, but supposed to be so…I think). Every so often, she’ll toss in a sarcastic aside about Snow White (Lily Collins) having a pretentious name, or villagers singing and dancing because none of them has a job. It’s tonally weird, and discomfiting.
And yet the movie does not suck, as you must surely imagine it might. Though the expensive-looking production will likely be a bomb today, it’s going to be a cult hit of tomorrow, destined to be enjoyed in many a dorm room where “medicinal” fumes fill the air. “You’re short, and it’s funny,” says the prince (Armie Hammer) to the seven dwarfs, and he’s probably right on the money as far as many viewers are concerned. But another line he utters has more truth: “No-one needs to know the details.” He’s speaking about being mugged by the septet, but he could be talking about the Snow White story itself; beyond the broad strokes, is there really an untold story of any kind? Even the obligatory feminist spin that sees Snow White wielding a sword is by now so predictable that Mirror Mirror is only one of two movies this year to utilize it. But… and this is the key but… there is room to get weird with it. And that is something this movie does very well.
Director Tarsem, who is sometimes billed by one name and other times by multiples (so let us use the simplest), appears to be aiming for a blend of Terry Gilliam (irreverent dwarfs entering fairy-tale versions of history is totally Time Bandits) and Matthew Barney (the animal costumes worn at the ball suggest a conceptual art piece almost irrelevant to the narrative, save one overplayed tortoise-versus-hare reference; The abstract version of live-action chess played with fully loaded battleships on the participants’ heads definitely fits the bill). He lacks the smarts of either, but his own instincts, ever irreverent (this is the guy who mocked the Greek gods in Immortals, and made the video for the ultimate agnostic hit “Losing My Religion”), give us such oddities as a royal palace that looks to be shaped like a hand flipping the bird to the world, and a version of the magic mirror that forces Roberts to walk through a glass wall into an alternate dimension floating hut reminiscent of later levels in Spyro the Dragon, wherein she converses with a digitally face-lifted version of herself. Is it coincidence that the royal wedding scene features similarly foppish multicolor fashions to The Hunger Games? Perhaps.
As for the giant marionette/artist dummies that the Queen sends into battle later on, it’s apparent Tarsem has seen Lost in La Mancha and
cribbed been inspired by some of Gilliam’s unused Don Quixote concepts. Well, since Gilliam wasn’t using them, why not? The accordion stilts that the dwarfs use to appear as giants are certainly nifty enough, and let us give props for using actual little people (notably Pirates of the Caribbean costar and stunt-guy extraordinaire Martin Klebba). It’s cool in some ways that the next Snow White movie coming along got actors like Ray Winstone, but enough with the digital shrinkage when there are plenty of shorter thespians with talent.
If there’s a weakness, and there is, and no, it is not named Nathan Lane, it’s that Snow White herself (Lily Collins) is practically a nonentity. Collins goes through the motions with one note — being generally nice — while Roberts, sometimes tripped up by her faux English accent, exists practically in a world of her own. Hammer, as the prince, is the MVP, showing an impressive eagerness to try anything, even it means barking like a dog.
Best to approach Mirror Mirror like a waking dream. The story doesn’t make much sense, but the visual cues meld into one another with the finesse of a painter blending his colors. That the big picture he creates is overly familiar may not matter, if your eyes can just revel in the shading.