Well, I’m in a spot this week. The only new movie coming out this weekend is American Reunion, and it didn’t screen for critics in time for our deadlines. I was planning to write this piece about both Mirror Mirror and Wrath of the Titans, but the latter movie turned out to be such a chore to sit through that I’m only going to write about Tarsem Singh’s comic take on the Snow White fable, which is a much more interesting film. “More interesting” doesn’t necessarily mean “better,” but if I were presented with the choice of seeing one of those films again, I’d pick this one.
Lily Collins plays Snow White, a princess of an enchanted kingdom whose father has disappeared in the forest while battling a dangerous beast. Her vain stepmother (Julia Roberts) has taken over as queen and is threatening to spend the kingdom into oblivion until a wealthy marriageable prince (Armie Hammer) visits and appears to offer financial salvation. When he turns out to be more interested in Snow, the queen quietly orders her killed, and Snow is only saved when the courtier entrusted with the murder (Nathan Lane) takes pity on her and turns her loose in the forest instead.
The script by Jason Keller and Melissa Wallack is deliberately silly, with characters often breaking into modern speech at odd times. This would be great if it were funny. That’s not the case. There are no laughs to be had in the queen’s mistreatment of her underlings or her magic-fueled attempts to win the prince or the bickering of the seven dwarves who take in the exiled Snow White. (The movie earns points for casting actual dwarf actors in the roles instead of normal-sized actors shrunk down by special effects.) There is an amusing montage of the queen putting herself through a torturous beauty regimen, but the movie wastes all the potential of the idea of a beautiful movie star confronting the aging process.
What saves the movie from banality is director Tarsem Singh’s incredibly flamboyant visual sense, which has distinguished all four of his feature films (including last fall’s epic Immortals and 2000’s serial-killer flick The Cell). Tarsem contributes a number of distinctive touches, such as the queen stepping through the surface of her magic mirror and emerging completely dry out of an enchanted lake, and the dwarves’ first appearance on stilts that makes them look like giants. Production designer Tom Foden gives us castle interiors that dwarf the human scale and give the film a truly otherworldly look, while the late costume designer Eiko Ishioka (to whom the movie is dedicated) decks out the royals in sumptuous garments. The approach doesn’t fit the jokey tone of the material, but the trappings make the movie a joy to look at, even when — or perhaps especially when — the story makes the least sense.
The actors all seem to be on different pages as to how much to camp up the material. The 23-year-old Collins is the daughter of 1980s rock star Phil Collins and has a distinctive presence on screen. (Seriously, I hope she never plucks her eyebrows. They’re what keep her from looking like all the other pretty girls. We haven’t seen eyebrows like hers on a leading lady since the days of Audrey Hepburn.) She does all right acting downtrodden, as this Snow White is supposed to be for much of the proceedings, but she does less well with the parts when Snow takes back her kingdom. The role could have used a bit more gumption.
The only time Collins looks genuinely authoritative is at the very end, when she leads a palace Bollywood dance number that takes place over the end credits. You read that right: Without any warning, the movie suddenly turns into an Indian musical. Unlike the movie’s other attempts at foolery, this one comes off quite well. The generosity of spirit and campiness takes the chill off Tarsem’s sense of splendor and spectacle (in stark contrast to his last attempt at a children’s fable, his wretched 2004 misfire The Fall) and makes Mirror Mirror into a pleasing minor diversion.
Starring Lily Collins and Julia Roberts. Directed by Tarsem Singh. Written by Jason Keller and Melissa Wallack. Rated PG.