Keeping up with shifts in the pop cultural consciousness is a full-time job, and I don’t envy the devoted parents who must struggle to stay abreast of what their children might be ‘into’ at any one time. Just when it seemed that tweenagers had collectively agreed to obsess about vampires and werewolves and sexting, along comes another fad to preoccupy them. And strangely, this one comes from an even older source of literary inspiration than those bloodsuckers and shapeshifters: fairy tales. At least mums and dads already know these stories, and won’t have to furiously Wikipedia the plot synopses merely so they can make heads or tails of whatever it is their daughter is going on about.
Two television shows have recently begun inspired by the brothers’ Grimm (the aptly titled Grimm and Once Upon a Time), and this year alone we are being treated to two vastly different takes on the Snow White saga. At this stage it’s hard to know if the trend is an organic one, evolved from audience desire, or if it’s being orchestrated by Hollywood types hoping to take advantage of pre-established brands and cheap, “public domain” properties. Though I suspect the latter is actually the case, the first Snow White feature out of the gate, Mirror Mirror, is a sweet, uncynical retelling of the beloved legend. Due to its lack of edge, the picture is unlikely to become a craze amongst the older Twilight set. Still, the littlies should gobble it up, thanks to the expectedly cartoonish and nutso vision of director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar (he keeps adding a name to his credit with every movie, but he’ll always be simply ‘Tarsem’ to us).
Lily Collins – for whom the constant compliment of being ‘fairest of them all’ can scarcely convey her effulgent qualities on screen – stars as Snow. This plot is so deeply ingrained in our psyche it really doesn’t require summarising, but please indulge me in my reviewerly duty. Princess White has been kept out of the kingdom’s sight by her evil stepmother, Queen Clementianna (Julia Roberts), for most of her developmental years; trapped in her bedroom, she’s slowly blossomed into the most beautiful young lady in all the land. Snow catches the eye of the wandering Prince Andrew (a frequently shirtless Armie Hammer), who has taken residence in her castle after being attacked by a septet of vicious, tiny thieves. The evil monarch wants Andrew all to herself however; his nation is bountiful (that’s not meant as a double entendre), and a marriage to him could help save her own from destitution, provided there’s not a nasty pre-nup. Jealous Clementianna instructs her long-suffering footman Brighton (Nathan Lane) to cast out her wretched, porcelain-skinned step-daughter and leave her to die in the wilderness. She’s made of tougher stuff than they could have imagined. Snow teams up with the seven criminal dwarves (Ronald Lee Clark, Robert Emms, Martin Klebba, Mark Povinelli, Jordan Prentice, Sebastian Saraceno, and Danny Woodburn), and, struck with a jolt of Occupy-esque rebellion, plots to end the Queen’s cruel taxation methods, restore her land to greatness, and, of course, rescue a ‘puppy-love’ potion induced Andrew from Clem’s clutches.
Not all of the elements mesh. There must have been some miscommunication during the meeting when the actors agreed on which accent they’d be employing. The humour occasionally veers jarringly from appealing exclusively to toddlers and then exclusively to their parents (although, I will forgive the occasionally anachronistic jibes, which aren’t nearly as annoying here as they are in the Shreks). And screenwriters Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller miss a trick by not having the entire tale relayed from the Queen’s deliciously warped lens, as in the opening sequence. Mirror Mirror remains a pleasant kids’ film nonetheless.
Tarsem’s 2006 masterpiece The Fall is as close to a newly-devised fairy tale any director has made this century, and it is strange, sumptuous, and absolutely splendiferous; famously realised with little-to-no CGI. The special-effects heavy Mirror Mirror can’t compare, but the art direction, costume design, and astounding attention to detail does give significant weight to his oddball world. It’s also sold wholeheartedly by the unflinching and energetic cast. Armie Hammer convinces as the charming Prince, yet is unafraid to play the fool. The cast of bandit dwarves are also a lot of fun, and, mercifully, their size is not leaned on as a comic crutch so much as their disparate personalities are. Only Julia Roberts is unable to totally distance herself from ‘Julia Roberts’, but that may be part of the joke. She seems to be having a good time playing the baddie, and she has a nice rapport with Lane, so it’s certainly no slog to spend time with them.
As of this writing, it’s unknown if viewers will flock to Mirror Mirror; whether they’ll bide their time until Rupert Sanders edgier Snow White and the Huntsman instead, starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron as Snow and the Queen respectively; whether their success or failure will influence the release of all those other proposed fairy tale reboots (including, would you believe it, another Snow White flick with Saoirse Ronan); whether everyone will soon be buying YA novels about a sex starved modern Beauty and her efforts to tame the wild-but-secretly-sensitive Beast (actually, that sounds really familiar). All I know is that Mirror Mirror ends with a Bollywood-infused musical number, and, based on all that has come before, its presence makes perfect sense. Be thankful under-10s can still be catered to in the impending age of the “gritty” fairy tale, and that a wonderfully unique filmmaker like Tarsem is in charge of rousing their imagination.
Mirror Mirror arrives in Australian cinemas March 29, 2012.