Movie Review: Mirror Mirror
March 28, 2012
When director Tarsem Singh told me back in the Fall of 2011 that MIRROR MIRROR was (1) unlike anything he had done before, (2) unlike any "Snow White" story that had been previously done, (3) was filled with "color, fantasy and fun" and, (4) "you will love it" - he wasn't lying. Creative, colorful, fanciful and funny, this is one fantastic fairy tale that is hilarious fun for the whole family! MIRROR MIRROR is the stuff from which dreams and fantasies are made and I love it!
Now, the tale of Snow White is not new to any of us. A beloved fable for centuries, thanks to a the popular retelling by the Grimm Brothers in the 1800's, we know about the beautiful princess named Snow White, although over the years, even their version has been sanitized for current culture. (Much darker versions of the story had long been a part of cultures the world over. Even in the original Grimm version, Snow White was 9 years old, betrothed to a prince and the evil step-mother was killed by dancing in red-hot iron shoes.) Daughter to a powerful king, Snow White’s mother died when Snow was a baby. Raised by her father, she was the apple of his eye. But a father, even a king, needs a queen and so he eventually found himself someone suitable as a wife and step-mother to Snow White. But the queen had other plans in mind, for as Snow White grew up, she became more beautiful with each passing day and still remained the apple of her father’s eye. Suddenly, the King was struck down and Snow White was left to be raised by her step-mother, the Queen. Unfortunately, the Queen was not only extremely vain, but extremely jealous, exceptionally greedy and very very evil. Wanting to be the “Queen of the World” in every way, shape and form, she daily called on her trusty magical mirror to boost her confidence. “MIRROR MIRROR, on the wall. Who’s the fairest one of all?” Imagine her displeasure when the Mirror one day replied, “Snow White.” And thus, the evil Queen knew she had to get rid of Snow White - for good. And rather than dirty her own hands or call on her personal woodsman (as in other incarnations), she calls on her trusty foot-servant Brighton to do the evil deed.
And here’s where MIRROR MIRROR gets the “Tarsem twist” with a 21st century modernization fit for a princess as Snow (as she is called) while beautiful in balloons, corsets and lace and living in an enchanted fairy tale land, is now a very courageous young woman. Thanks to some words of wisdom from “Baker Margaret”, Snow ventures out from the castle down into the kingdom and sees first hand the horrors that the Queen has bestowed upon the King’s once magical and happy kingdom. The Queen must be stopped and the kingdom returned to its glory. But how to do it and who will help her? And of course, along the way, she is met with bandits in the forest and horror stories of a “beast” that roams wild.
Meanwhile, enter Prince Alcott. Passing through the forest between the town and Snow White’s castle, he and his trusty aide, Renbock, are ambushed by “bandits” and taken prisoner. Stripped down to his bare chest and longjohns, Alcott eventually finds himself in the palace of the Queen, who can now add lust-filled to her resume. Salivating over the handsome prince, the Queen wants him for herself. She also wants his money as her kingdom is bankrupt thanks to her own lavish spending.
Who will win the heart and hand of Prince Alcott? Just who are these bandits? How does the Queen stay so beautiful - and so evil? When did Snow White get so masterful at swordplay? Will Snow White’s kingdom be returned to her and restored? What secrets lie within the forest? And can we see more of the bare-chested Prince Alcott?
Lily Collins can now put a sorrowful performance in "Abduction" behind her. As Snow White, she is precious. Employing a meek, higher pitched voice reminiscent to the world’s most well-known Disney incarnation of Snow White, Collins endears herself even more to the diehard fans of the fairy tale. While fitting the character's persona, it is a lovely touchstone for audiences so they don't go through complete culture shock with this version of the story. As for her look, Collins is simply beauteous. Red lips and raven hair are perfectly balanced against textured white gowns and white on white backgrounds. The introduction of color into her wardrobe with the cobalt electric blue and black, golds, peach and blue, adds a great dynamic to an emotional shift within the character herself. This is definitely not your parents’ or grandparents’ Snow White as, thanks to the vision of Tarsem Singh and the performance of Collins, Snow White is now “this modern day girl. She saves the Prince just as easily as the Prince saves her. She becomes a fighter physically and emotionally and goes from this young, wide-eyed innocent princess that everyone grew up knowing, to a young woman who finds herself and what she believes in; and gives the Prince a run for his money, while wearing these gorgeous outfits. You can still be that princess but you can also have a lot of fight within yourself.”
Particularly challenging to Collins was not only navigating in the costumes, but performing all of her own stunts and fight scenes in the forest on coarse salt which was used for snow. “The snow, being salt and coarse salt, was not that fun the way we were wrestling and losing and scraping yourself. . . That forest, had a lot of hills and a lot of places to trip and fall. And I’m the kind of person that falls going up stairs, so for me, it was kind of a challenge [more] than having the big dresses and the corsets and the swords in my hands to maneuver around the space.” And of course, the wardrobe presented it’s own difficulties. “Remember the white outfit. I had these wings on that I would forget I had on and then try to walk through a doorway and get stuck.”
As the Evil Queen, Julia Roberts adds a wonderful icy touch to her acting palette, something we don't usually see from her. (The entire time I was watching her my mind kept jumping to "The Snow Queen" with her as The Snow Queen.) Admittedly drawing “from a couple of people I know better than I wish I did”, with pitch perfect wry delivery and facial expressiveness, countered with Roberts' megawatt disarming smile, she often takes you by surprise when she turns on a dime with emotion. According to Roberts, “It was fun to play this villain because there aren’t any real rules of syntax with the reality that applied to her. I could kind of do anything and just go off the rails in any direction at any time. It would make sense to me. So, in that regard, it was a lot of fun. You don’t have to worry too much about the reality of ‘would a person really do this.’” Most distinctive, however, is her comedic timing and repartee with Nathan Lane’s Brighton. Developing great patter and pattern between the two, Lane capitalizes on his "sad sack", "woe is me" facial expressiveness to add to the overall performance and scenes. A perfect foil for Roberts’ Queen, I have to say that without Nathan Lane, Roberts would not have been nearly as delicious or effective.
But then let’s see Roberts toe-to-toe with Armie Hammer. As the handsome and strapping Prince Alcott, dialogue between Roberts and Hammer is subtly adult, guaranteeing some laughs for the adults while the kids are mesmerized with “short bandits”, action and swordplay. And while I still prefer Stuart Damon’s Prince Charming from the 1965 tv “Cinderella” as my ideal prince, Hammer is engaging, enjoyable and extremely funny when under an evil love spell of the Queen. He is attuned to physical comedy as easily as to the action of sword fights.
Most interesting to the character is that the tables are turned in this version of the story as the Prince has a somewhat pompous edge to him that is a delightful balance to often buffoonish and naive actions; which only buttresses Snow White as the female protagonist.
The real rock stars of MIRROR MIRROR are the dwarves/bandits. Collectively and individually, these guys are the heart and soul of the story, the comedy, the fun and laughter. I could watch a movie just about them. And each of the actors is so recognizable. We've seen them in film and tv for years and I just love each of them more every time they are on screen. Mark Povinelli is a real scene-stealer here as Half-Pint, playing unrequited love for Snow White with such heart and adorable conviction. And the wonderful Jordan Prentice and Danny Woodburn as Napoleon and Grimm, respectively - each of the guys just lift your spirit whenever they appear on screen!! Then for good measure, we have the comedic - and athletic - talents or Joe Gnoffo as Grub, Sebastian Saraceno as Wolf, Martin Klebba as Butcher and Ronald Lee Clark as Chuckles. Together, this group of actors just make the movie soar, giving it some real character. A fun element that will entertain kids everywhere (I know two nephews that will be clamoring to have these) are hydraulic spring action accordion stilts which turn the dwarves into “giants”!! Beyond cool and fun!!
Robert Emms' Renbock brings a great comic innocence to the film as Prince Alcott’s aide. Emms is so funny that not only would I have liked to see more of him, but he and Nathan Lane paired up. Mare Winningham adds a lovely, warm motherly touch to the tale as Baker Margaret while a nice surprise is the appearance of Sean Bean as the King. Ladies, besides Armie Hammer, this one’s for us. Sigh!
Important to Tarsem iss that he wanted to make MIRROR MIRROR, “a family friendly film.” With a mindset from the producers of “want[ing] to make a fun, original movie with a female protagonist that was a great hero and treated her very much as we would a male protagonist; somebody who would stand up for themselves and appreciate what was unique and special, learn over the [course of the film] what was special about them”, it didn’t take much to get the very visual Tarsem on board.
And what about Tarsem Singh. Perhaps the greatest visual and visionary director of our day, with him involved, you know the film a sensory, eye-popping experience filled with wide-eyed wonder, perfect use of light and explosions of color. With MIRROR MIRROR, he doesn’t disappoint. The visuals are impeccable. Clean, razor-edged, clarity of thought through color, vivid use of color juxtapositioned against the purity and starkness of "white white", all stunningly designed and choreographed by Tarsem, production designer Tom Foden, cinematographer Brendan Galvin and costume designer Eiko Ishioka. So synergistic is this team, it is impossible to talk about one without the other. The visual result of their efforts is, in short, brilliantly beautiful. Establishing lavish and expansive architectural design in both set and costume, there are nods and touchstones throughout the film to history, other cultures, fantasy, folklore and what seems like the most famous of the Grimm Brothers writings. MIRROR MIRROR is not only about Snow White. It is love letter to fairy tales and The Brothers Grimm. Particularly eye-catching is Tarsem’s nod to his own heritage and his love of ancient Persia with the palace looking like something from "The Arabian Nights" with the gold minarets spiraling into the sky, adding a new layer of interest and fantasy to an old story. Another magical visual is the forest in which the bandits/dwarves live. Recalling the beauty of a silver birch forest in the Russian film “Ivan’s Childhood”, Tarsem knew that he needed and wanted that look for MIRROR MIRROR as a means to set the tone. Most impressive is that while green screen and visual effects are used, all of the sets one sees on screen were designed and built in order to create a very visceral and engaging experience for both the actors and audience. The lavish, over-sized opulence works wonders in satisfying the fantasy of the story.
And what about the story? Having been hashed and rehashed so many times, screenwriters Marc Klein and Jason Keller write to their strengths (Klein - romance and comedy; Keller - action) and give us a new take on an old favorite. Retaining the core elements of the Snow White story, they embellish on the tried and true of prior well known versions but ramp it up one hundred-fold. (And yes, there is a nod to the Seven Dwarves in the dialogue. Listen for it!) As mentioned above, noticeably different in MIRROR MIRROR is that here, the Queen is actually physically beautiful. She just has an ugly personality. This bodes well for the story and given the references to her "beauty treatments" and the whole "cougar" aspect of chasing the younger prince, is perfectly updated for the 21st Century. An element of this film that I cherish is the nod to so many Grimm Brothers fairy tales - Snow Queen, Ugly Duckling, Snow White, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Red Riding Hood - particularly through costuming (not to mention the Beast, which bears strong resemblance to the Wolf in Red Riding Hood).
Which leads me to Eiko Isioka. Oscar winner and long time collaborator with Tarsem, Eiko recently passed away after a battle with cancer, a battle she was fighting while working on MIRROR MIRROR. A lovely swan song for her, MIRROR MIRROR is perhaps the most memorable and fanciful of all of her creations and the perfect memory to leave us. After seeing the strength and power of her work in "Immortals", to see the elegant, regal and fanciful elements of her work in MIRROR MIRROR is, as Julia Roberts describes it, “stunning.” As a costumer, while Eiko's work was more fanciful and fantastic, to my eye, she was always in league with the classic costuming by Edith Head. So amazing are her costumes here, that I would start the 2013 Oscar campaign for Outstanding Costume Design now.
As for cinematography, Brendan Galvin can do no wrong in my book. I know how difficult shooting white on white is, yet he masters it beautifully with lighting and lensing to create a magical palette that is emotionally transportive. Simply gorgeous visuals with lighting and then framing those elaborate gowns by Eiko! Each scene looks like a magazine glossy.
Completing the experience of MIRROR MIRROR is Alan Menken's score. Lilting and fairy tale like, while elements of the film are darker in context than what we have all come to expect with Snow White, Menken keeps the tone light, reminding us that the story is rooted in childlike fantasy.
Mirror, Mirror on the wall. What's the fairest film of all? MIRROR MIRROR. Let Tarsem Singh takes you through his looking glass into the magical world of MIRROR MIRROR.
Snow White - Lily Collins
Evil Queen - Julia Roberts
Prince Alcott - Armie Hammer
Brighton - Nathan Lane
Renbock - Robert Emms
Directed by Tarsem Singh. Written by Marc Klein and Jason Keller based on the story by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.