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altFractured fairy tale ‘Mirror Mirror’ goes for the yuks

Did you hear the one about Snow White and the Seven Stooges? That’s the prevailing sensibility in Mirror Mirror, the first of two dueling Snow White movies due out this spring. (The second, Snow White and the Huntsman, opens June 1.) Directed by the sometimes-brilliant Tarsem Singh (The Fall), Mirror Mirror tells the oft-told tale with plenty of visual pizzazz and the grrrl power element that’s become de rigueur in updated fairy tales. Unfortunately, the emphasis on campy slapstick—especially among the dwarfs—is almost as fatal as a poison apple to the project.

This is a double-edged shame because, when they’re not poking each other in the eye or clobbering people with sticks, the dwarfs and their relationship to the banished princess Snow White (Lily Collins, looking very Audrey Hepburn-ish) are the most interesting part of the story. Big kudos are due to Tarsem for casting authentic dwarf actors in the roles (instead of full-sized actors shrunk down via CGI, as in the TV show Once Upon a Time or the upcoming Huntsman). Despite the low-comedy script by Melisa Wallack and Jason Keller, the individuality each actor brings to his dwarf character keeps their part of the tale intriguing.

The camp factor is at its most revved-up whenever Julia Roberts flounces onscreen as the Evil Queen. Having married Snow White’s father, the king, and dispatched him to the forest, never to be seen again, she’s usurped the kingdom from its rightful heiress and taxed the people into abject poverty. Roberts is a skilled comedienne; she gets the most out of every curt wisecrack and acidic aside as she schemes to get rid of Snow White, and marry the handsome young prince (Armie Hammer) from a wealthy, neighboring kingdom, who’s wandered into her realm on a quest for something or other.

But there’s nothing remotely sinister about Roberts’ queen, she’s just catty. And without at least some attempt at dramatic tension at its core, the movie plays out as one big joke.
In this version, the queen’s bumbling manservant (Nathan Lane, another deft farceur), ordered to take “Snow” into the woods and kill her, sets her free instead. She soon falls in with a septet of dwarf highwaymen, who let her stay with them in their woodland cottage as soon as they find out she can cook. But, happily, she does not become their surrogate mother.

Instead, they give her lessons in thieving, swordfighting, cunning, and survival. (She even gets swashbuckling wardrobe tips from the stylish Napoleon (Jordan Prentice). The engaging idea here is that each of these men had regular jobs in the kingdom once—Butcher (Martin Klebba, from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) was just that; Grimm (Danny Woodburn, who played Kramer’s irascible acting class buddy in Seinfeld) was a schoolteacher. But they were banished by the queen with the rest of the undesirables and “uglies,” and forced into thievery to survive. Scenes of these men at work are the most fun, appearing out of the gloom on springlike stilts with an arsenal of acrobatics to terrify their victims (mostly wealthy emissaries from the queen).

Hammer works hard in the goofiest role, first as the dwarf’s humiliated victim, then in a comic swordfight with Snow (even though she wins, he keeps “spanking” her with the flat of his blade, eww), then literally playing lapdog to the queen when she mistakenly slips him a “puppy love” potion instead of the passionate kind. But the scene when each dwarf tries a different method of smacking him to his senses is grueling, as is the scene when he keeps trying to break down a door—over and over and over—as the cheering dwarfs become less enthused. Yawn.
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Still, the movie can be splendid to look at, from winged ball gowns and fancy swan and seahorse headdresses to the queen’s pleated gold throne. (I loved the eerie porcelain-like doll figures who “act out” the story’s prologue.) Of special note are the ravishing costumes of longtime Tarsem collaborator Eiko Ishioka, who passed away after this film was completed, and to whom it is dedicated. Hers will be a hard act to follow in future Tarsem extravaganzas.

MIRROR MIRROR

★★1/2 (out of four)
Watch film trailer >>>

With Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, and Armie Hammer. Written by Melisa Wallack and Jason Keller. Directed by Tarsem Singh. A Relativity Media release. Rated PG. 106 minutes.

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