Plenty of kids (and adults) should find the film to be more than just a beat-for-beat live-action adaptation of a familiar story.

Mirror Mirror is the first of two Snow White retellings headed to the big screen in 2012 (with Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman arriving June 1st). Compared to the major storyline retooling in Huntsman (a not-so-charming Prince and a warrior knight Snow White), Mirror Mirror has long been expected to be the more “traditional” of the two. Of course, with director Tarsem Singh (Immortals, The Cell) – known for his unique visual style – at the helm, moviegoers were never going to get a Snow White tale that merely transposes the beloved fairy tale onto the big screen in live action.

That said, Singh’s prior big screen efforts have often prioritized style over substance – leaving audiences with sharp eye candy but an incoherent story filled with thin (and, worst of all, uninteresting) characters. Has the director managed to strike a balance in his latest film and deliver a Snow White tale that is imaginative, beautiful, and fun to watch?

Despite some over-indulgent story moments and, at times, hammy performances, Mirror Mirror offers a mostly fun riff on the Snow White story and succeeds as a film that, despite somewhat uninspired marketing, should be entertaining for moviegoers regardless of age. It’s easily Singh’s most coherent (and commercial) film; though some fans of the director’s visual stylings might come out a bit underwhelmed, as the project is also – as a result of the subject matter and onscreen presentation – his least ambitious undertaking.

As mentioned, despite some intriguing changeups that develop over the course of the film, the core Mirror Mirror setup should be pretty familiar to anyone who has ever heard of Snow White (or the seven dwarves). In the film, Snow White (Lily Collins) is the daughter of a benevolent and kind King – a man who rules the land with honor and humility. When his kingdom is threatened, the King disappears into the forest – leaving Snow White’s care in the hands of her stepmother, The Queen (Julia Roberts). Years pass and the kingdom struggles under the oppressive and selfish rule of The Queen – until, on Snow White’s eighteenth birthday, the young heir-apparent leaves the castle in search of adventure (and to see her struggling kingdom for herself). Outside the walls of the castle, Snow White encounters a number of strange new acquaintances, including a Prince (Armie Hammer), seven dwarves, and “the beast” – all of whom contribute to the young woman’s desire to step up and retake her kingdom from The Queen.

Julia Roberts is The Queen in ‘Mirror Mirror’

Following the initial “traditional” Snow White set up, Mirror Mirror does offer a number of fun surprises – resulting in a mishmashed experience that blends some overdone fairytale ideas with genuinely entertaining twists. That said, despite a lot of humor and fun spectacle, the balance is awkward at times, as the more traditional aspects aren’t nearly as interesting as Singh’s departures. There’s also a very tongue-in-cheek element to a lot of the film’s performances and story developments – making it difficult to know when the onscreen performances and events are intentionally hammy or unintentionally stilted. Similarly, certain storylines – as a result of the reliance on traditional character arcs coupled with Singh’s own flourishes – don’t entirely come full circle in a coherent way – while other aspects are overly obvious long before their point is finally revealed.

As an example, in spite of a likable performance from Roberts, The Queen’s depiction and storyline aren’t nearly as interesting or imaginative as the evolution of Snow White or the implementation of the Mirror Mirror dwarves. Roberts wears a lot of extravagant costume gowns and The Queen is provided with a number of memorable dialogue exchanges; however, largely, the character is mostly a live-action version of the familiar Disney cartoon (albeit with a lot more snark), and seems somewhat flat compared to the flourishes enjoyed by other major players. The character is yet another victim of Singh’s reliance on style over substance, as The Queen’s exploits in the “mirror” (in particular) offer some beautiful and interesting visual imagery, but compared to the rest of the story, are excessively abstract and ultimately convoluted.

Collins isn’t likely to win many awards for her performance as Snow White, either, but unlike The Queen, there’s an enjoyable balance between tongue-in-cheek fairy-tale satire and compelling moment-to-moment drama. Snow White, like many of the characters, is little more than an embellished caricature – but since we’re talking about a fairy tale, the lack of believable development isn’t really a distraction since  many viewers come pre-loaded with the basic character archetypes in mind. Ultimately, changes to Snow White or her Prince don’t alter the existing relationships too much – even if the film seems to think it’s boldly defying convention from time to time.

Snow White (Lily Collins) and Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) in ‘Mirror Mirror’

Conversely, Singh’s dwarves succeed in finding a sharp balance between conventional expectations and fresh ideas that not only make the group more interesting, but also up the action quota in the film and play to the director’s strengths as a visual filmmaker. In the interest of time, most of the dwarves aren’t given particularly deep individual backstories; however, the way the group is implemented into the larger themes and action beats in the story represents an evolution in Singh’s filmmaking chops, as the director utilizes one of his trademark (i.e. bizarre) visual design choices for the characters that pays off in a number of different ways (without overshadowing personalities or opportunities for drama). The result: some genuinely intriguing action beats that are both fun to watch and offer an intriguing twist on these familiar characters.

That said, a few elements in Mirror Mirror go over the top and undermine some of the film’s established strengths – such as a scene where The Queen undergoes a “treatment” or another story beat where Prince Alcott is not quite himself. These moments, which are clearly aimed at the juice-box crowd, are representative of the mixed-up tug-of-war that occurs during Mirror Mirror‘s 106 minute runtime – where certain aspects, as mentioned, offer smart satire that works in the fairy tale context, while others come across as unnatural or unintentionally awkward. The less successful moments don’t really detract from the experience, but by the time the credits roll (or rather, while the credits roll), some moviegoers may not be entirely sure whether Mirror Mirror was a sharp and self-relexive take on the familiar fairy tale – or a disjointed mess of a film that’s full of muddled, or outright missed, opportunities.

Either way, Mirror Mirror is more interesting than much of the marketing might have led moviegoers to believe, delivering plenty of humorous, as well as entertaining, moments coupled with Singh’s usual slick visuals. It might not be the most ambitious of the director’s films – or the most intriguing take on Snow White this the year – but plenty of kids (and adults) should find the film to be more than just a beat-for-beat live-action adaptation of a familiar story.

If you’re still on the fence about Mirror Mirror, check out the trailer below:

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Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick – and let us know what you thought of the film below.

Mirror Mirror is rated PG for some fantasy action and mild rude humor. Now playing in theaters.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5

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