From Tarsem’s early days in music videos and commercials through his debut feature (The Cell), his years-in-the-making labor of love The Fall, and his 2011 epic Immortals, he’s exhibited two constant themes: a love of vividly colorful rococo imagery, and a love of myths and fantasy, which are conducive to his brand of richly appointed, spectacle-driven melodrama. The new Mirror Mirror doesn’t buck the trend, but it takes his familiar obsessions in a newly comic direction. The first of two big-screen retellings of the Snow White story due in 2012 (the second, Snow White And The Huntsman, arrives June 1) keeps the humor dry and self-conscious, and sometimes clunky. It’s attempting a lightness that Tarsem has always lacked, but it only periodically achieves it, and most of the time, it’s visibly laboring.
Mirror Mirror opens with a lovely animated history of Snow White’s life and her kingdom’s history, narrated by languidly sarcastic queen Julia Roberts, whose sneering at Snow White’s name and other fairy-tale givens sets the tone for the film’s humor. Mirror Mirror is rarely meta, but it’s conscious and calculated about its reversals of fairy-tale tropes: Here, the handsome prince (Armie Hammer) is a hapless doof, the seven dwarves are capable, personality-rich, persecuted citizens instead of cutesy-but-bland woodland critters, and Snow White (Lily Collins) re-creates herself as a resourceful sword-fighter who lets Hammer know she doesn’t want to be one of those storybook princesses who need rescuing. (He protests that the prince-saves-the-day ending does well with focus groups.) Only Roberts as the malicious, beautiful, self-absorbed queen is a relatively traditional figure, though even she peppers her villain role with sardonic modernity.
Mirror Mirror fits neatly into a long line of cinema fantasies that get by on homemade charm and visual verve. Some specific elements from those fantasies are particularly familiar: The Princess Bride’s banter and swoony, not-entirely-serious romance; Time Bandits’ fractious, violent, but good-natured little-people outlaw team; The 10th Kingdom’s unlikely but startlingly impressive antagonist and slobbery-dog-prince comedy. (As an unfortunate bonus, like Labyrinth, Mirror Mirror centers on a doe-eyed, raven-haired girl protagonist whose stiff, overemphasized posturing just makes her grimly playful villain look better by contrast.) Like all those films, Mirror Mirror is sometimes slow, and sometimes too reliant on fakey special effects, but ready to redeem itself with genuinely creative ideas, like the CGI marionette villains or Tarsem’s dark, spooky take on the magic mirror. And all of Mirror Mirror is visually striking, even when it works on no other levels. But the humor is erratic, the heroism isn’t necessarily compelling, and the whole thing feels like a grab bag of bits that don’t entirely cohere. At least Roberts seems to be having a blast.