Having two competing projects about similar topics seem to be a popular, albeit somewhat silly thing in Hollywood. Silly because at the end, in the best case scenario one film usually suffers form it, sometimes even both, confusing the audiences. Examples for this phenomenon are aplenty, starting with the two volcano movies of 1997 – Dante’s Peak and Volcano. Just a year later we have been presented with two movies about an asteroid headed towards the Earth -Michael Bay’s effects extravaganza Armageddon and the more sombre vision, Deep Impact. Two years later, Hollywood wanted to take as to Mars with Mission to Mars and Red Planet – both failed to launch. It is not uncommon outside of blockbuster pictures either with 2005/2006 giving as two movies about Truman Capote. One, Capote, became a critical sensation and won the Best Actor award for Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whereas the other, Infamous, was greeted with mostly warm reviews as well, but went largely unnoticed. Sometimes one studio bails out at development stage (usually a smart decision for everyone involved), but more often than necessary none is willing to let go of the project.
Last year Hollywood decided that the audiences are in a dire need for a revamped Snow White-themed film. A random topic for two studios to develop at the same time, you might think. The explanation is simple and very well financially reasoned. In 2009, Tim Burton’s take on the classic Alice in Wonderland tale (riding the 3D coattails of Avatar) crushed the March opening weekend record and went on to become a $1 billion worldwide hit. The conclusion is simple – more fairy tales adapted for modern audiences means more money for the studios. Universal and Relativity announced their intention to film the old tale closely to each other, however using a different atmosphere for their movies. Universal’s Snow White and The Huntsman, to be released later this year and starring Kristen Stewart as Snow White and Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen is a dark fantasy action affair with a more epic scale. Relativity’s Mirror Mirror, on the other hand, is a straight-up fairy tale adaptation that emphasizes the comedic aspect of the story. Already the footage seen in the trailers for both films shows vast differences on tone. That might actually allow for both films to succeed on their own, even though audiences will rightfully be confused about why exactly there are two movies about Snow White this year.
The first film of the two to be released is Tarsem’s Mirror Mirror. The lot treads very familiar paths. In a magical land far far away, a beautiful daughter, called Snow White is born to the king and queen. After the queen’s death, the kind king (Sean Bean) is enchanted by the evil Queen (Julia Roberts) and is ultimately sent off on a quest he never returns from. The Queen assumes the throne, ruthlessly taxing her peasants into utter poverty. Her stepdaughter Snow White (Lily Collins) has no idea of the suffering in the kingdom until she sneaks out of the castle one day. Meanwhile, the Queen is trying to court and marry the charming and handsome prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) as a marriage would give her a fortune again. With Alcott having fallen for Snow White, the Evil Queen has her stepdaughter exiled from the castle. In the woods, Snow White joins forces with seven bandit dwarves and decides to fight back and reclaim her birthright.
To bring Snow White’s fairy tale world to life, Relativity couldn’t have hired a much better director than Tarsem Singh. While his filmography (that includes The Cell, The Fall and last year’s bloody fantasy epic Immortals) is a mixed bag, there is one thing that all of his films have in common – a great eye for the visuals. The former music videos director brings his sense of incredibly lush sets and costumes to Mirror Mirror as well. In particular Tarsem’s regular Eiko Ishioka who has won a Costume Design Oscar for Bram Stoker’s Dracula never fails to impress with the lush and decadent costumes which already make the film an early contender for an Academy Award in that category. The dresses that Julia Roberts gets to showcase throughout the film are some of the craziest and most imaginative that have graced the big screen in a while.
However, while Tarsem can definitely score with the film’s opulent visuals, same cannot be said for the movie in its entirety. Frankly, it is a mixed bag. It’s interesting to compare it to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Burton’s film was also pretty to look at, had a strong actress for the part of Alice, but was ultimately a soulless exercise in eye candy. Tarsem’s Mirror Mirror never tries to go for the same Chronicles of Narnia vibe that Burton’s film did towards its end, keeping the scope rather small. It is more humorous and overall more fun, but the greatest contrast between the two is that Snow White’s heroine is so extremely bland that you can’t help, but root for the Evil Queen from time to time. Lily Collins has showcased her acting abilities (or the lack thereof) in last year’s Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction and Mirror Mirror confirms the suspicion. She looks the part, no doubt, but she’s just a cardboard figure that can never be taken seriously. Julia Roberts, on the other hand, is one of the film’s highlights. It was a wise move to cast America’s Sweetheart in the role of a villain. She plays the part with gleeful mischief and makes the viewer wonder why she hasn’t been cast against type earlier in her career. After her stints in a bore like Eat Pray Love or the calculated soulless box-office machine Valentine’s Day, her Evil Queen role might just be the best thing she has done since her Oscar-winning part in Erin Brockovich. Unfortunately, the film around her just isn’t as good as she and her costumes.
Armie Hammer continues to deliver on the promise of versatility that he has first shown in The Social Network, this time showing some good comic timing but he’s ultimately not given much to do. Nathan Lane’s faithful servant to the Queen delivers a couple of laughs, whereas Sean Bean is painfully underutilized. Robert Emms as Prince Alcott’s sidekick scores great laughs too, but unfortunately completely disappears in the first part of the movie. The actors playing the seven dwarves are quite decent in their parts as well. The film still suffers from Lily Collins simply not delivering an engaging protagonist as Snow White. Maybe this was obvious to the filmmaker’s as well as the film’s focus is every single bit as much on Roberts as it is on Collins.
Overall, Mirror Mirror is an entertaining romp with a whole lot of self-referential humor that seems lifted directly from Shrek. Occasionally, it does work well, but with Shrek being the eternal template for fairy tale referential humor and pop culture jokes, the whole thing seems repetitive in a way. It tries really hard to put a new spin on the old tale, while still remaining in the fairy tale world we all know and love. This balance is more often off than it is not. Paying respects to Tarsem’s heritage, Mirror Mirror’s structure also plays like a Bollywood musical, complete with a love story, some drama, a happy ending and even a catchy song ‘n dance number over the end credits (which is actually surprisingly fitting in the context). The film is not as empty as Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, but despite great imagery it is also never truly enchanting as a fairy tale should be.