I knew Mirror, Mirror wasn’t going to work for me once I heard that Tarsem Singh wanted to make a family-friendly comedy based on the story of Snow White. Here’s why: Tarsem Singh, for all of the things I absolutely love about his films - the stunning visuals and landscapes; the lush textures; costumes that do impossible and infinitely interesting things; the innovative execution of imagery no one else comes close to touching – for all of that, there is the reality that story means very little to the gorgeous canvas Tarsem Singh is painting. And with comedy, story is nearly everything. You have to have the language for comedy, and Tarsem Singh does not have that magical ability some directors possess to finesse some very tired jokes into anything better, so this film rides along at a very uneven pace, with no real idea of what it wants to be, or even who it’s for. If I had to guess, I think Mirror Mirror might do all right with moms who want to take their tween daughters out for a movie that doesn’t have vampires in it.
You know the basics. It’s Snow White, after all, with Snow (The Blind Side’s Lily Collins), her Evil Queen stepmother (Julia Roberts), a charming prince named Alcott (Armie Hammer), and seven dwarfs. Nathan Lane as the Queen’s servant, Brighton, provides dabs of humor here and there, and Mare Winningham is wasted as a servant who loves Snow and encourages her to expand her awareness, with Grimm consequences, on her 18th birthday.
The film starts incredibly slow, with Roberts doing some heavy lifting to try to breathe life into material that is dead on arrival. When a line like, “Snow should do what snow does best – Snow falls,” is used two times in a script, you would hope someone would recognize it as a typo and drop at least one. Hammer as Prince Alcott is hunky, but not particularly funny or interesting. The seven dwarfs are amusing, but not as adorable as they should be. They come out wearing costumes and fighting like Cirque du Soleil performers, if the Cirque turned to a life of crime. It’s marginally interesting for a moment, but then it goes on far too long, and becomes annoying.
You can just tell Tarsem thinks things like dressing The Baron (Michael Lerner) outlandishly and giving him a wacky hairstyle several feet tall is hysterical by the way he lingers on shots that don’t get any funnier. The same is true of scenes where the Queen prepares to meet a handsome suitor – the scenes are supposed to be funny because of the extremes she goes through to be more attractive, but the cinching of corsets and the use of bees and maggots as beauty aids goes on too long and doesn’t work as comedy.
Throughout the film, Snow White makes the decision to do things for herself, and then is rescued by the guys around her. She requires a contingent of little men who teach her how to fight, and when she locks Prince Alcott away so she can face a beast that dwells in the forest by herself, he has to break loose and save her, because, darn it, girls need princes. For a movie that wants to preach female empowerment, it’s really only because the lead damsel in distress recognizes a piece of jewelry that the day is saved.
Mirror Mirror tries. It tries being self-deprecating, tries to give a wink to fairy tale movies and plot conventions, tries to be slapstick, tries to be serious, it even tries to be a Rembrandt painting – but it never really knows what it should be to work as a comedy, so none of it meshes well. That includes the out-of-the-blue Bollywood dance number at the end. I really wanted to like this more, but it ended up making me wistful for Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits - also visually stunning, but with jokes that work.