“I bet you think you know this story. You don’t — the real one’s much more gory.” With this crisp opening couplet, Roald Dahl announced his imminent desanctification of the Grimm Brothers’ “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” one of six done-to-death fairytales given a black-comic makeover in his 1982 bestseller “Revolting Rhymes.”
Dahl’s book was itself a tangy kid-lit response to Angela Carter’s ingenious adult sexualization of that dusty literary canon in her essential 1979 volume “The Bloody Chamber”; working at opposite ends of the scale, both writers were making a concerted effort to reclaim these darkly symbolic stories, originally targeted to grown-ups, from their sweetened, child-oriented colonization by Disney. Bar the occasional valiant but underseen effort, however — Neil Jordan’s Carter adaptation “The Company of Wolves” among them — it was a while before Hollywood arrived at a similarly subversive memo, particularly as Disney revived their commercial fortunes at the end of the 1980s by returning to the pages of Andersen and Perrault, their traditionalist approach interrupted only by happier endings.
By the time the theoretical spirit of Dahl had entered mainstream cinema, it had curdled most unappetizingly: the sloppy, biliously spirited 2001 smash “Shrek” earned a lot of undue credit for its alternately cynical and scatological disrespect of fairytale tropes, but the absence of any moral or ideological fiber in their place made for an increasingly vapid and joyless subgenre. (And that’s before we even touch the likes of “Hoodwinked!.”)
There’s only so long one can titter at oh-so-naughty character names like “Farquad” before one craves a bit more perspective, a bit less guile, or both — particularly with filmmakers like Catherine Breillat, Julia Leigh and even Darren Aronofsky playing rather more inventive, romantic, spiritually loyal games with the fairytale form, though still within the adult bracket.
It’d be a stretch of both the truth and the film’s very intention to say that “Mirror Mirror,” Tarsem Singh’s lithe, literate, extravagantly daffy redesign of “Snow White,” quite fulfils that lofty brief — it’s girlier and more good-natured than anything from the Dahl school of storytelling, for starters, though with its scattering of macabre visual gags and morally corrupt septet of dwarves, I’m willing to bet there’s a dog-eared copy of “Revolting Rhymes” on the bookshelf of writer Melissa Wallack. But for all its parodic 21st-century nudges, it’s also an authentic fairytale, at least three parts swoon to one part snark, unapologetically reclaiming the genre from “Shrek” levels of smugness.
There’s the merest threat of a false note in the film’s opening beats, but it’s a momentarily alarming one: “They called her Snow White,” Julia Roberts narrates, her familiarly spiky tones tinged with creamy contempt, “because it was the most pretentious name they could come up with.”
It’s a reasonably smart line, one that gently announces a wink-wink postmodern perspective while still sounding more or less in character from Roberts’s bored, haughty Wicked Queen. (After all, if we’re likening magic-kingdom royalty to contemporary notions of celebrity, “Snow White” is just the sort of affected moniker Hollywood’s great and good assign their offspring, inviting similar sneers.) But even as it got the required chuckle, this blithe intrusion of 21st-century irony sets up prickling concerns that we are, once more, pitching ourselves far above the source.
No sooner are such concerns established, however, than they are thrillingly banished by the exquisitely animated shadow-box prologue that follows. Tidily filling in the nuts and bolts of the Snow White legend for younger viewers that haven’t yet made its acquaintance — both responsible and responsive to its audience, this is the rare revisionist fairytale that doesn’t take its public-domain source as a given — with an elegantly revolving diorama of layered, stylized tableaux from multiple schools of past illustration, it’s a knockout sequence in isolation. More crucially, however, it sets up the storybook meter and heightened visual fancy that are to be the cornerstones of this adaptation; even when it shifts into frenetic comic riffing, “Mirror Mirror” remains bound by its obligations to magic.
That Tarsem, the advertising-schooled oddball whose astonishing visual concepts are rarely tethered by logic or practicality, should prove such a delicious fit for the genre is hardly surprising. To various degrees, his three previous features — “The Cell,” “The Fall” and last year’s swords-and-sandals-and-fetishwear spectacular “Immortals” — have all been fairytales to one degree or another, precoccupied with parallel realms and dream coding.
After flirting (okay, fucking) with Greek mythology in his last film, the similarly entrenched universe of European folklore was an obvious follow-up destination, and it’s been suitably, rewardingly Tarsem-ized: the director’s singular panoply of culture-clashing motifs, his saturated blood-and-mustard palette and, of course, his enduring mask fetish are splashed liberally across Tom Foden’s dazzling, CGI-brushed production design, which expands the expected Gothic spaces of past screen renditions with vast, gilded orientalism and the occasional witty flash of bare-boards theatricality.
It’s hard to think of a contemporary director whose auteur credentials are represented quite so assertively by his story worlds. It harder still to imagine his future work without the similarly defining contributions of the late Eiko Ishioka, whose jaw-droppingly catholic costumes — touching on everything from commedia dell’arte burlesque to block-colored Asian warrior wear to laser-cut Hollywood glamor, complete with a closing nod to Disney’s own iconic Snow White gown — represent a stunning sign-off to an extraordinary career; if a posthumous Oscar nod doesn’t materialize, serious words need to be had with that Academy branch.
The bigger surprise, then, is that Tarsem should be so comfortable with the frisky farce that makes up much of the film’s second half, its unashamed silliness cresting with a potentially disastrous, but finally riotous, sequence in which Armie Hammer’s appealingly dim Prince Charming is possessed by the spirit of a slobbering puppy; the director’s work has always toyed with absurdism, but never copped to it quite so openly or gleefully.
Still, to credit Tarsem’s bouncy pacing and the neat emotional throughline of the script — Roberts’ narration turns on a clever literary somersault about whose story “Snow White” even is — for keeping the soufflé from falling is to undersell the invaluable contributions of an imaginatively chosen cast, who tussle far more playfully with their helmer for control of the scenes than any remarkably attired Tarsem ensemble to date.
Roberts especially, more alert and mischievous than she’s been in anything since “Erin Brockovich,” is having a blast. Her gawky sweetheart charm makes her an unlikely choice for high-camp villainess duty, but her strikingly venomous line readings (in, admittedly, a touch-and-go accent) and stroppy body language swiftly prove the wisdom of casting someone who might well have played the wide-eyed princess 20 years ago: it’s that much clearer why the Queen would feel personally affronted by Lily Collins’ milky charms. (Further points to Roberts for being a good enough sport to undergo a black-hearted makeover scene that pokes wicked fun at her profession’s own vanity.)
Roberts doesn’t have it all her own way. Collins belies her wan appearance to emerge as a surprisingly game heroine; her interaction with the endearingly characterized dwarves, notably one (an excellent Martin Klebba) whose name in the 1937 Disney rendition would have to be Skeezy, gives the character spark beyond her slighty rudimentary proto-feminist assignation.
Better yet is Hammer, revealed here as a comedian of expressive elasticity and calculatedly slack timing, whose forte clearly lies in goofily undermining his immaculate WASPish hotness: “Someone get the man a light covering,” a blushing, twinkly-eyed Roberts barks to an orderly as the Prince enters her court, sheepishly shirtless. It’s a million miles from Angela Carter, but this subtle sexing of characters in an otherwise fluffy family petit four is a welcome sign that Tarsem’s fairytales have some blood running through their veins.
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