Why do it? Why go to the trouble of mounting a production like Mirror Mirror (2012), which, I’m telling you, is one of the best–looking movies of the year, why spend the time, the energy, the money, the creativity on a production so sumptuous, so inventively visual, so gorgeously costumed with such excellent art direction just to put it at the service of a script that’s cloying, cliché and uninteresting? Here is a gorgeous movie telling a story that’s dead on arrival, like a leather-bound phone book. To pull off such a visual triumph would have taken endless meetings of production design, meticulous planning and workshopping. At just one of these meetings didn’t anyone stop and say, “Guys, what are we doing all this for? The script sucks.”
The story is a retooling of the Snow White legend, a tale I didn’t think was crying out for an overhaul, but Mirror Mirror represents one of two Snow White reworkings forced on the public in 2012 so I guess I’m wrong. We have the evil witch, the Queen (Julia Roberts), whose vanity is consummate, who has usurped the kingdom from its rightful owners and is keeping the true heir, Snow White (Lily Collins) locked up in the castle. The handsome Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) visits, as handsome princes do, and falls for the beguiling Snow White, to the dismay of the Queen. Snow White is exiled to die, but she doesn’t really, of course, and she instead partners with a band of marauding dwarfs against the Queen, who has trapped the Prince in a love spell.
The restaging is not necessarily the problem; the problem is in the way the restaging is told. The scenes drag on tediously and predictably so that you’ve sized up what’s going to happen when it begins and simply sit there waiting until it does. The script is peppered with so many tongue-in-cheek asides that it not only obscures the moments when it wants to be genuine, but it also gives the impression that it isn’t sure of itself, as if it’s worried about going too long without making a bad joke to break things up. Some of the bits land, maybe three out of ten, but this isn’t baseball. This lack of confidence that the script has in itself leads to a wasted opportunity in its very premise. The movie doesn’t seem like it’s sure it should be adding its bent to the tale to begin with, so you either get bold, bluntly stated but ultimately meaningless cosmetic changes (at the climax, Snow White directly comments on the proceedings by saying that in fairy tales it’s always some man rescuing the maiden and she’s out to flip the script. Then she locks her male allies in a house to battle a fearsome wolf-dragon by herself. That isn’t feminism, that’s stupidity) or the movie acts as if it’s an offbeat adaptation, yet we arrive at all the same places anyway (there is a romantic possibility between Snow White and Half Pint [Mark Povinelli], one of the dwarfs, that I was desperately pulling for but should have known was a pipe dream, as Snow White ends up with the bromidic Prince, not from any genuine affection provided by the script, just out of tradition. Besides the movie choosing the expected, Half Pint’s pursuit of Snow White is treated like a joke, as if the very idea of a little person with a beautiful woman is funny. His advances are met with Snow White’s demur smiles, as if she’s a classy lady deflecting a drunk at a bar).
Julia Roberts does a fine job as the smart-alecky Queen but she’s slightly miscast. She can be plenty bitchy, but there are times when the story requires menace and she doesn’t have that gear. When she smiles, even a vengeful smile, she’s still the Pretty Woman (1990) sweetheart, and when we see her gloating over her ill-begotten gains, the smile is as radiant as if Richard Gere were in the scene snapping that necklace case at her. However, she’s the only one with a juicy part (Nathan Lane, as a sniveling royal toady is allowed to have some fun as well), and she does the best with it. Collins and Hammer are saddled with characters so undercooked not only do they make us wonder what they would see in each other, but they make us wonder about the choices we’ve made that have led us to see this movie.
And yet, there are glories to behold in Mirror Mirror, sets so fantastic and clothes so interesting that it creates an odd Stockholm Syndrome-like insistence to keep watching just to see what beautiful adornments come next. The movie is directed by Tarsem Singh, one of the great visualists working today, whose unique eye helped make triumphs out of The Cell (2000) and The Fall (2006) and is the saving grace here. We have a chess game using real people as the pieces with intricate, nautical-themed headgear. We have a costume ball in which the guests dress up as animals, each costume more elaborate and beautiful, ranging from an elegant swan chapeau to a bulbous walrus costume with a tusk–adorned dickey. There is a wedding outside that has all the sartorial glory of the racetrack sequence in My Fair Lady (1964), but it can hardly be appreciated because the story makes you ask yourself what all these people are doing at an outdoor wedding in a kingdom in which there’s fresh snow on the ground every day.
The inventiveness doesn’t stop at the clothing rack; there are well-designed action sequences like an attack on the dwarfs’ home by twelve-foot marionettes controlled like voodoo remotely by the Queen (actually, the puppet assassins are at the employ of the Mirror, also played by Roberts, who enacts the Queen’s magical wishes). The dwarfs do their raiding on accordion–expanding legs that give them imposing figures, and their introductory attack on the Prince is magisterial, but in fine Mirror Mirror fashion, once it’s over and the Prince realizes his attackers are little people, we’re treated to a tired and offensive bit about how short they are. The film’s visuals are done in not only by the script but also the editing, which is too quick to be comprehensible let alone to give us enough time to appreciate what’s on the screen.
Perhaps I’m harder on the movie than it warrants simply because one aspect of it is so good. The script is bad but not historically bad, but it is coupled with such fantastic accoutrements that it drives me nuts that it can’t keep up its end of the bargain. The end credits roll along for nearly ten minutes listing the names of technicians, designers, painters and craftsmen. These people are artists. They’ve wasted their time. So did I.