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NEW YORK – Wait, has there been a mistake? The trailer for the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman, set in a macabre, menacing fantasy world, looks distinctly like something that might have sprung from the dark visual imagination of Tarsem Singh. But instead he somehow got attached to the other revisionist Snow White movie, Mirror Mirror, the campy, comedic kid-friendly take on the Brothers Grimm classic that stuffs a period fairy tale full of winking contemporary humor. It’s an unexpected pairing of director and material that is no less perplexing even after sitting through this mishmash.
The marketing hook is Julia Roberts playing the evil Queen in a version of the story told from her character’s point of view. There’s certainly pleasure to be had from her cruel delight in the misery of her subjects, her insane vanity and her vicious scheming against the pure-of-heart Snow White (Lily Collins). The slyly self-mocking Roberts and a droll Nathan Lane as the Queen’s obsequious servant could do this kind of comedy in their sleep, so some laughs are guaranteed. But the director displays zero feel for the farcical in a sluggish movie that starts out flat and rarely acquires momentum.
Narrative storytelling is not Singh’s strength. In The Cell and Immortals, character and plotting come a distant second to the director’s elaborate visual aesthetic. But old-fashioned storytelling skills are paramount in any fairy tale.
Mirror Mirror requires us to hiss at a villainess, root for a heroine, chuckle with her rowdy band of dwarfs and swoon for her handsome prince. Some of the under-12 audience might get with that program, but it’s an effort. This is a movie drowning in flamboyant design elements and in need of a stiff shot of enchantment.
Marc Klein and Jason Keller’s wit-deprived screenplay, from a story by Melisa Wallack, aspires to the same school of fairy-tale irreverence as The Princess Bride, Shrek and Enchanted. But those movies had heart. Among the key twists is the now-standard feminist switch that instead of riding along near the end to save Snow White, the Prince himself gets saved by a kiss from the heroine, who is far from defenseless. There’s also the usual serving of anachronistic dialogue and references, such as that well-worn nod to focus groups.
Living large in her grand castle on a rocky promontory while the commoners starve to pay her taxes, the Queen is a gold-digger looking to replenish the royal fortune. She sees a solution to her financial woes when wealthy Prince Alcott (a game and occasionally shirtless Armie Hammer) stumbles into her kingdom.
At first the Queen is merely irked by her stepdaughter, but when Snow White catches the Prince’s eye, irritation turns to rage, and she orders her to be removed to the forest and executed. Unbeknownst to the Queen, Snow White is spared and taken in by seven bandit dwarfs, who teach her fighting skills. That prompts the Queen to dip into her dwindling reserves of magic – which she accesses by stepping through her mirror portal to what look mystifyingly like Tahitian thatched huts built on water – to enslave the Prince and eliminate Snow White.
Part Jennifer Connelly and part Audrey Hepburn, Collins (daughter of musician Phil Collins) is quite a beauty. But she’s also a little bland, playing the role as a modern girl who never really seems too threatened, even when facing down the dreaded Beast, a forest-dwelling terror with the head of a wolf crowned by antlers, the tail of a giant reptile and the claws of a vulture.
That fantastical creature is right in Singh’s wheelhouse, but the uneven CGI elements are so overwhelming that the characters are all but suffocated. From the lush fantasy landscape to the quaint village to the chilly forest, this is an entirely set-bound, artificial environment lacking in magic, a shortfall that saturation use of Alan Menken’s score tries to cover.
There are stunning elements, chief among them the magnificent costumes of Singh’s regular collaborator, the late Eiko Ishioka, to whom the film is dedicated.
But the whole thing lacks tonal cohesion, lurching from Tim Burton-style comic grotesquerie to underpowered action set pieces to a gratuitously self-referential Bollywood production number on the end credits. The impression is that of a director constantly fighting to put his stamp on material that’s foreign to him, and unable to figure out what that stamp should be.
Opens: Friday, March 30 (Relativity Media)
Production companies: Goldman Pictures, Relativity Media, Rat Entertainment, Misher Films
Cast: Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane, Sean Bean, Mare Winningham, Michael Lerner, Mark Povinelli, Jordan Prentice, Danny Woodburn, Sebastian Saraceno, Ronald Lee Clark, Martin Klebba, Joe Gnoffo, Robert Emms
Director: Tarsem Singh
Screenwriters: Marc Klein, Jason Keller, from a screen story by Melisa Wallack
Producers: Bernie Goldmann, Ryan Kavanaugh, Brett Ratner
Executive producers: Tucker Tooley, Kevin Misher, Jeff G. Waxman, Robbie Brenner, Jamie Marshall, Tommy Turtle, Josh Pate, John Cheng
Director of photography: Brendan Galvin
Production designer: Tom Foden
Music: Alan Menken
Costume designer: Eiko Ishioka
Editors: Robert Duffy, Nick Moore
Rated PG, 95 minutes
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