In a tweak of the traditional Snow White story, a virtuous youth (Collins) is cast out by her wicked stepmother (Roberts), setting up home with a band of dwarves, but this time they're bandits who will help her reclaim her throne.
It might seem a strange thing to say, but Mirror Mirror could have done with Tarsem Singh letting himself go a little more. The director of Immortals and The Fall is not really one for holding back — he is to fanciful excess as Tim Burton is to Gothic and Terrence Malick is to a leisurely pace — but his moderately revisionist take on Snow White is too tasteful by half. It has the potential to be a riot, of both visual style and arch humour, yet it frequently mutes itself on both and is instead merely mildly gaudy and gently wry, like a so-so Shrek sequel.
This is largely the traditional Snow White story — set up in a beautiful, snarky animated prologue — but with the slight difference that Snow White fights back against the evil queen, rather than just cleaning, accepting food from strangers and having a snooze; and the handsome prince is every bit as hapless as he is chiselled. The queen is still, of course, a vile old witch and the film’s greatest asset. Julia Roberts embraces with gusto the role of bitterly ageing beauty, sinking those famous teeth into every bit of scenery she can grab and going full camp on every withering line. It’s just a shame there aren’t more of them. Each time a character, more often than not Roberts, is given a real zinger, it’s left to sit there, unmatched. Nobody ever shoots back with a challenge, so you wind up with a very jerky pace, an awkward thing for comedy. If you can’t get a good pithy rhythm going with Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane (as the queen’s aide), then the script is severely lacking.
Without the queen on screen the life goes out. Snow White is a particularly unthrilling character by tradition — she really does nothing but await rescue and keep getting herself in trouble — and though there is an attempt here to make her more of a plucky Robin Hood type who wants to liberate the poor, she is still crushingly earnest, through no fault of the sweet Lily Collins. Her diminutive companions are given one joke each (being lovelorn, eating, howling at things) and repeat it until numbness sets in. Her princely suitor, however, has been wrenched out of do-gooder tedium by a wonderful turn from Armie Hammer, alternately heroic and clumsy and consistently, fittingly, charming.
There’s a lot that’s smart and unusual about this take on the fairy tale but there’s just as much that’s drearily safe and traditional. If only it had the gumption to run with its more crazed impulses and commit to being properly bonkers.
Superlative performances from Roberts and Hammer almost cover the shortcomings. Like most Tarsem films its a muddle, but this time not one with enough distracting dazzle.