Review: ‘Mirror Mirror’ lets Julia Roberts play bad and aims just for kids

The first of this year’s Snow White movies arrives in theaters this weekend, and one thing is immediately clear.

These movies are not competing with each other.

Whatever “Mirror Mirror” is, it is not looking to stake its claim as a big fantasy action epic.  You look at the trailer for “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and they’re looking to compete with films like “Wrath of the Titans” or “Thor.”  That is not at all the sort of thing that “Mirror Mirror” has on its mind, and so the first thing you have to do when dealing with these two films is to remove all comparison from the way you regard them.  That’s probably a good thing for both films, because if they were trying to play to the same audience, then any reaction you have is just about comparing and contrasting, and that seems like a losing game on both sides.

Tarsem Singh is carving a very unusual career out for himself, and as this point, the one thing his films have in common is that he obviously builds his films based on images more than words.  That is not a slam, either, but a simple observation of his strengths as a filmmaker.  I didn’t see “Immortals” when it came out in theaters, but it just showed up here on Blu-ray for review, and while I thought it was visually dazzling at times, with some images that were both breathtakingly conceived and executed, it is a complete miss as a screenplay.  I was actively offended by his first film, “The Cell,” precisely because it was such a stupid, dirty screenplay made beautiful by his visual gifts.  The only film of his that I really liked was “The Fall,” and even in that case, I think it’s a weak script made better by the strength of a truly amazing child performance.

“Mirror Mirror” is his first film overtly made for a young audience, and in a way, this might be a better fit for his sensibility.  There is a level of artifice from the first frame to the last that is so complete that you can’t take any of this seriously.  In the first few lines of dialogue, delivered by the Evil Queen played by Julia Roberts, there is a mix of blunt sincerity and winking snark that pretty much defines the whole movie.  This is a fairy tale played straight, but with a self-aware sensibility underlining the whole thing that tells the audience not to take any of it seriously.  The film never lands its big thematic punches because it can’t figure out which themes it’s interested in with the Snow White story.

This is that rare case where my family saw a movie before I did, and for almost two weeks, the kids told me how much they enjoyed the film and what I should expect from it.  My wife seemed equally fond of it.  Knowing that, I went it wanting to see the same film they did, and while I think I know why they liked it, I do not share their enthusiasm.  I thought it was just tin-eared enough that I disconnected from it, and that’s a shame.  The world itself is beautifully imagined, and I like the particular flourishes contributed by production designer Tom Foden, cinematographer Brendan Galvin and, of course, costume designer Eiko Ishioka.  Her work is showcased here in a way that is very loving, and even if she hadn’t passed away in January, this would be a real tribute to her eye for shape and her sense of whimsy.

That’s the thing that is present here that has never really been in evidence in any of the rest of Tarsem’s work, and I suspect the reason the film doesn’t really gel for me is because the whimsy feels like the wrong fit for Tarsem.  There are things he seems to enjoy shooting here, like the dwarfs, who operate as bandits in the forest wearing giant stilts to make themselves intimidating.  When they first show up, it feels like Tarsem likes what he’s showing you so much that he wants to really make it into a big reveal.  I get the sense he liked Roberts and let her do whatever she wanted, and she has visible fun with the part.

It’s just that with no real stakes and no sense that any of this has any real weight, it’s hard for me to invest.  The dwarfs, as played here by Martin Klebba, Danny Woodburn, Mark Povinelli, Jordan Prentice, Sebastian Saraceno, Ronald Lee Clark, and Joe Gnoffo, do a nice job of playing the thinly defined characters they’ve been hired to play, and they have their moments to shine.  Unsurprisingly, the dwarfs were my sons’ favorite things about the movie.  The choice to make them bandits who are working out their own anger at being rejected and cast out because of the Queen’s desire to do away with anything “ugly” is a nice one, but it’s really only handled in the most cursory of ways.

Lily Collins is quite cute and charming in the role, and very young.  The age difference between her and Hammer seems as pronounced as that between Hammer and Roberts.  Because the film plays so light, she and Hammer just sort of smile their way through things, each of them striking and pretty in their own way, and they both acquit themselves perfectly well, considering how little is demanded of them.  Make sure you stick around for the closing credits, too, where the film erupts into a full-blown Bollywood musical number.  It is bizarre, but somehow fits the hodge-podge approach the entire film utilizes.

Overall, “Mirror Mirror” skews young in intent, and it’s probably fitting that Alan Menken was in charge of the score, because this feels like a lesser Disney effort, or maybe even a Don Bluth film, designed to cash in on Disney’s style and subject matter.  Watch Nathan Lane in the movie… that’s the same performance given by every comic toadie sidekick in any animated movie with a bad guy in the last fifteen years.  And unlike the animated films that try to aim higher, that do more than just nod at the idea that family films should be for the whole family, “Mirror Mirror” seems content to just be big and broad and silly and just for kids.  Adjust your expectations accordingly.

“Mirror Mirror” opens in theaters tomorrow.