When Lily Collins busts out into a bollywood-style song at the end of Mirror Mirror, it seems both jarring and well, of course that's what's going to happen now. Director Tarsem Singh (better known simply as Tarsem) has a tendency to throw all sorts of things into a blender and come up with a visual frappe: light and mostly tasty, but kind of airy even when dealing with dark subjects.
Not that this update of the classic Grimm's fairy tale "Snow White" is meant to be dark. Even the Disney version made its Evil Queen more terrifying than Julia Roberts. Instead, The Queen enjoys beauty and luxury at the expense of her people, inherited when her husband the King mysteriously disappeared in the dark woods.
Tarsem sets all that up with CG porcelain dolls and a spinning zoetrope – combining our earliest moving images with cutting edge special effects – that makes for a mesmerizing opening. Actually, your enjoyment might vary depending on your tolerance for Roberts, whose narration varies as wildly in tone as the rest of the movie.
After that bravura opening, Mirror Mirror settles into a deep winter. Understandably, the kingdom suffers from great malaise under the Queen, with splashes of color from Snow White herself (Collins).
But for much of this segment, it seems that Tarsem just doesn't know what to do with the story. It goes around in circles establishing various characters but still spinning around the same ideas: things are bad, Snow White is ignorant, and occasionally Nathan Lane will pop up to be Nathan Lane.
A bolt of energy hits with the introduction of Prince Alcott. The character is vaguely written in the script by Melissa Wallick and Jason Keller, but at least given life by Armie Hammer's pleasant self-awareness of his good looks and the ability not to take himself the slightest bit seriously until it's absolutely necessary.
And then there are the dwarves, here given a slightly more action-oriented role than miners. In a forest haunted by a mythical beast, the seven dwarves harry travelers in accordion stilts, robbing from the rich and giving to themselves, at least until Snow White comes to live with them .
Tarsem presents the dwarves in a clever enough fashion, reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits. But like everything else, it's clear that once their basic introductions have been done, the story really doesn't know what to do with them. So we must have a training montage as Snow becomes a warrior -- shades of the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman, which won't be kid appropriate. Thank you Tarsem, at least, for reaching to do a family film.
So it devolves into slapstick from time to time, and none too terrifically clever. At least it's something to break up the long patches of circular dialogue and admittedly gorgeous composition.
As a filmmaker, Tarsem really is an artist. He just needs to beef up his storytelling ability, or at least work with a screenwriter as gifted with words as Tarsem is with images.
Despite modern twists, it is a fairy tale still meant solidly for children, and for them it has much to offer – and much time to make runs to the bathroom after buying the kids' pack snacks at the concession stand.