Daft, dazzling in design but straining ever so hard to be hip, Mirror Mirror isn't your Uncle Walt's Snow White.
It's still kid friendly, with lots of positive messages, especially for young girls. But this flip and sometimes funny take on the classic fairy tale is a mash-up of many such tales, packing in bits of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, with a touch of Robin Hood for good measure. And as a movie, eye-candy specialist Tarsem Singh borrows from Zorro, Time Bandits, and his own The Cell and The Fall.
Anything to dress up one of the blander fairy tale heroines from the Grimm Brothers' canon. Anything to hide the fact that his Snow White is too perfectly cast to play bland. Lily Collins, the gorgeous, bushy-browed daughter of pop singer Phil Collins, conjures up memories of generations of models turned movie stars. Not since Francis Ford Coppola slapped his daughter Sofia into Godfather III have we seen a performance this dull, whispered, and charisma free.
Julia Roberts is the wicked queen/evil stepmother, and this story is ostensibly told from her point of view. That would have been a novel take, only they lost their nerve and didn't follow through with it.
Roberts brings a hint of glee to playing a broad screen villain. But only a hint. She too, lost her nerve. Look at Susan Sarandon's take on this character in Enchanted to see how it's supposed to be done.
The queen has dispatched Snow White's dad, and thanks to her vanity and her hunger for power, she aims to do the same to Snow White.
But there's a visiting prince (Armie Hammer of The Social Network) who could interfere. And the forest is full of dwarfs -- robbing, quarrelsome, wise-cracking dwarfs. "Never trust anyone over 4 feet."
These guys, led by Danny Woodburn (of Seinfeld) and Martin Klebba (who stole Project X) are the life of Mirror Mirror, an otherwise spotty attempt at capturing the tone of Enchanted. They have these stilts that fold up like accordions that they wear for their robberies. They have names like "Napoleon" and "Grimm" and "Half-Pint" and "Chuckles." Alas, they don't sing.
Alas, Collins does, in a Bollywood-style closing-credits burst that seems to be where Singh spent a lot of his energy. Mirror Mirror, the first of this year's two live-action Snow Whites (Kristen Stewart and an evil Charlize Theron star in the darker Snow White and the Huntsman this summer), has amazing images, from the opening "Once upon a time" animation, to the castle that looks like no fairy-tale castle you've ever seen, and the snowy forest that doesn't quite seem real.
But the actual "Mirror mirror on the wall" effect shows you where Mirror Mirror started to go wrong. The queen steps through an amazing liquid mirror and into an alternate reality where she steps out of a lake and into a fanciful dockside wooden hut. And there? Another mirror, where a cadaverously made-up alter ego Roberts listens to the demands of the queen. Beautiful, but pointless and redundant.
If only they'd put more "Heigh Ho" into the script, found more funny things for Nathan Lane (the queen's aide) to say and do. If only Roberts had had the guts to play mean (This is an image-obsessed movie star pulling her punches.). If only they'd found a Snow White with some spark to her.
Mirror Mirror leaves us with those "if onlys," and reminds us that the original incantation missed the big point. Casting "the fairest of them all" can't save you from a heroine as dull as her character's name.
Directed by Tarsem Singh. Screenplay by Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller. A Relativity release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG for some fantasy action and mild rude humor. Running time: 106 minutes.
Critic's rating: ** 1/2
The Queen .......... Julia Roberts
Snow White .......... Lily Collins
Prince Alcott .......... Armie Hammer