Friday, March 30, 2012

All Is Vanity. Nothing's Fair: "Mirror Mirror"

If you’ve visited this site, you may already know how much I love and admire Walt Disney’s 1937 classic film, Snow White. It’s one of our most popular posts to boot. So—a new Snow White story? I’m there. In fact, Mirror Mirror directed by Tarsem Singh starring Julia Roberts as the wicked queen is just one of two major motion pictures on the subject. Charlize Theron will take her bite of the apple this June in Snow White and the Huntsman. I totally get it. Who wouldn’t want a chance to play Snow White’s wicked queen, this vain and murderous villainess for the ages? My take on Julia Roberts’ performance as the wicked queen is also my review of the film: good but not great.

It makes sense that director Tarsem Singh made his name directing music videos. Music videos pace themselves. You cut your film to the song. Motion pictures need the fine hand of a talented director who understands the brutal nature of PACING, how it can hold or lose an audience. And this film, simply put, drags much more than it should. Better, snappier editing may have made this film a classic for the ages. It’ll have to settle for darn good, surrounding a few excellent sequences with sublime individual moments.

First things first, major props and a sad farewell to costume designer Eiko Ishioka. Ms. Ishioka passed away in January, and her exquisite work in this film is a fitting final chapter to a brilliant career. The costumes are seriously worth the price of admission. The sumptuous textures, embroideries, brocades, and patterns-on-patterns, especially in the queen’s wedding sequence, are breathtaking. The lavish art direction is also beautifully realized, featuring a brittle snow-laden white birch forest, a nod to any number of Hong Kong action films.

The nod to action films is fitting, seeing as the character of Snow White is re-imagined as an action heroine. Lily Collins as Snow White escapes her wicked stepmother in a scene not dissimilar from Disney’s animated film: the man ordered to kill her (in this case the always game Nathan Lane) instead sets her free and orders her to run away. “Snow,” as she’s often called here, is rescued by a group of bandits who disguise themselves as giants but are actually a band of outlaw dwarves. No Sneezy or Grumpy here. They are (there will be a quiz): Napoleon, Half Pint, Grub, Grimm, Wolf, Butcher, and Chuckles. These guys virtually steal the film, delivering the finest acting in the piece.

The dwarves’ backstory speaks to one of the great themes of the piece: the folly of vanity. It seems the wicked queen banished the lads years earlier in her efforts to rid her kingdom of all “ugly” people. A scene where Roberts undergoes a beauty treatment is downright gothic. Bee-stung lips? Yeah, she got those the hard way. It’s a “stinging” send up of the beauty industry as well as the culture that puts women under the knife to reverse the natural process of aging.

There’s an interesting addition to the cast in the presence of Mare Winningham as a member of the kitchen staff—Baker Margaret—who’s in Snow’s corner and encourages her to stand up for herself. That's Mare at left in the middle. She’s reminiscent of Cinderella’s fairy godmother but without the magic. And therein lies the ultimate point of this film: Snow wins in the end through hard work and persistence. All the wicked queen’s magic ultimately blows up in her own face. Armie Hammer as Prince Alcott sums this up when he declares the princess as more than capable of saving herself. You may remember Hammer as both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Like Lily Collins as Snow, they both do well in their parts, but neither truly transcends the material; so in a way, they’re a well-matched pair. But they have their moments, and their scene that sends up the original spell-breaking magic kiss is a sequence that works quite well.

There’s a lot to love here and don’t sneak out during the credits, because Singh has saved a few choice nuggets for the end. All in all, this film is worth your time and money. I’d leave kids under seven at home, as this film really does speak to a snarkier, more knowing audience. This isn’t your grandmother’s Snow White. And that’s the good news; and the slightly disappointing news.

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