Early on in director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s retelling of the Snow White legend, a prince mocks a dwarf: “You’re short, and it’s funny.” “Mirror Mirror,” alas, is neither. Poised between revisionist fairy tale and smirking sendup, this gaudy, over-frosted cream puff of a movie half-heartedly positions its famous heroine as a dagger-wielding proto-feminist, yet ultimately suffers the same fatal flaw as Julia Roberts’ evil queen: It doesn’t really care about anything except how pretty it looks. Bowing opposite strong fantasy-themed B.O. competition, the family-friendly Relativity release should nonetheless capitalize on its accessible story elements, marquee talent and distaff appeal.
Set in a faraway kingdom where castles look like pastries and vice versa, the picture is nothing if not a triumph of art direction; in scene after scene, the filmmakers seem to be seeking new visual definitions for “ornate,” “opulent” and “gilded.” The lavish look will come as no surprise to devotees of Tarsem, the delirious fantasist behind such oppressively gorgeous pictures as “The Cell,” “The Fall” and last year’s “Immortals.” Retaining most of his regular crew here, the director was arguably a shrewd choice for the job, capable of bringing his undeniable visual gifts to bear on a more familiar, less self-indulgent story than he’s previously tackled.
Alas, the script — written by Marc Klein and Jason Keller from a screen story by Melisa Wallack, with a hefty but uncredited assist from the Brothers Grimm — is a mostly mirthless affair, littered with stray amusements but more often bogged down by strained whimsy. Rife with anachronisms like “agree to disagree,” “I just need to process” and, in one particularly non-magical moment, “your tax dollars,” the film displays an unseemly delight in its own putative cleverness, taking its tonal cues from the self-satisfied sneer worn by its reigning villain.
That would be the queen (Roberts), she of the wobbly British accent, whose arch once-upon-a-time narration fills viewers in on how she bewitched the king into marriage, seized control of his dominion and locked away his beauteous daughter, Snow White (Lily Collins). Long since widowed, the vain queen has become a prowling cougar with romantic designs on the visiting Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer). But the handsome royal becomes smitten with the more age-appropriate Snow, who flees into the nearby forest when the queen orders her death.
In line with the film’s unsparingly hip, politically correct girl-power sensibility, Snow’s journey to happily ever after now involves mandatory weapons training and political activism. When the princess learns the queen and her loyal lackey (a game Nathan Lane) have been taxing the local villagers to death, Snow not only comes to the town’s rescue but, in a “Robin Hood”-style twist, encourages her new friends, the seven dwarfs, to raid the queen’s treasury and give back to the poor, which these pint-sized bandits manage by running around the forest on stilts.
If 2007’s “Enchanted” succeeded in skewering classic fairy tales, specifically “Snow White,” while retaining a winning earnestness at its core, “Mirror Mirror” never musters the comic energy or emotional sincerity needed to refresh its well-worn story. The arbitrary developments that dominate the later reels in particular leave one feeling the script didn’t command half as much creative decision-making time as, say, the precise curvature of the queen’s oyster-shell-like throne, to name but one particular of Tom Foden’s painstaking production design.
This slack, hesitant quality also emerges where it counts most, in Roberts’ performance. While the actress clearly relishes the opportunity to play mean for a change, she’s less a memorably ruthless baddie than a figure of mildly supercilious comedy, a tactic that largely fizzles along with much of the film’s intended humor, with the exception of one tightly cut, wickedly funny sequence detailing the queen’s insect-heavy beauty treatments.
Initially polite and demure, only to manifest a fierce, spunky integrity later on, Collins animates her pale-skinned, raven-haired archetype with grace and poise, while Hammer’s cocky but lovable prince proves rather too willing to sacrifice his dignity as needed. (One running gag involves the prince forever losing his shirt, bearing out the auteurial signature Tarsem established with the bulging male torsos of “Immortals” and “The Fall.”) Though stuck with fairly routine peanut-gallery bickering, the seven actors cast as the dwarfs make an endearing comic team, with Danny Woodburn, Martin Klebba and Mark Povinelli among the standouts.
Full of snowbound landscapes seen to glossy advantage in d.p. Brendan Galvin’s well-composed images, the effects-heavy production conjures little magic or excitement in its action-driven setpieces, as when Snow does battle with a bargain-basement Jabberwocky. The sumptuous and elaborate outfits, which include a white swan headdress that would make Bjork molt with envy, rep the final film creations of Oscar-winning costume designer and longtime Tarsem collaborator Eiko Ishioka, who died in January.