Due to my inexcusably long delay in writing my last review, I almost skipped this one; nowadays it seems like all I ever do is scramble to catch up with the newest releases. But seeing as there's another Snow White movie opening later this summer, I suppose it behooves me to catch the first of 2012's two competing modern takes on the classic fairytale, so I can compare them. (Hollywood parallel development always seems to happen in twos, e.g. two volcano movies, two big-space-rock disaster movies, two animated insect movies, etc.) Also because I'd missed out on Tarsem Singh's previous movie from earlier this year, The Immortals - and only because, again, I take so damn long to write these reviews. It was pretty damn tempting to just forego Mirror Mirror and pick Battleship, however.
But it would've been nice if the movie gave me a better reward for my choice.
Snow White (Lily Collins), the princess of her kingdom, lives with her stepmother the Queen (Julia Roberts), a cruel, petty and vain tyrant who has ruled the land since Snow White's father the King disappeared years ago. On Snow White's 18th birthday, she ventures for the first time in years outside the palace walls, and witnesses the suffering of her people - but this transgression turns the Queen's barely-tolerated irritation with her into outright enmity. The Queen orders her manservant Brighton (Nathan Lane) to take her into the forest and kill her, but she is found by a group of seven dwarf bandits - Grimm (Danny Woodburn), Butcher (Martin Klebba), Wolf (Sebastian Saraceno), Napoleon (Jordan Prentice), Half Pint (Mark Povinelli), Grub (Joe Gnoffo) and Chuckles (Ronald Lee Clark). Meanwhile, the visiting Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) from a neighbouring kingdom has already met and fallen for Snow White - and has also met the bandits, under much less genial circumstances - but the Queen has her sights set on marrying him as the solution to her financial problems.
The only Tarsem film I've seen to date is The Cell, of which I remember little other than some spectacularly fantastical visual imagery that also has a pretty big streak of macabre. Mirror Mirror is also very pretty to look at, but Tarsem has also made a much more light-hearted and kid-friendly movie this time round. In fact, the shortest and sweetest description of it would be that it's a live-action cartoon - specifically, a DreamWorks-ish animated film in the vein of the Shrek series. The broad comic sensibility is there, as is the willful disregard of realism (this kingdom apparently consists of a palace and one village) and the snarky modern sensibility to a classic fairy tale. But frankly, to compare it to a DreamWorks production is both damning it with faint praise as well as overrating it.
Let's get into the specifics. The movie is almost entirely driven by its performances (certainly not by its plot, which is kinda messy), and there are two standouts. Julia Roberts always struck me as a curious choice to play fairy tale villain; the closest she came was arguably Charlie Wilson's War, which I enjoyed, but thought Roberts was terrible in it. She fares somewhat better here, in that she's clearly having fun in the role, a prerequisite for any actor playing a broadly comic scenery-chewing villain. Still, chewing scenery has never been her forte (and if I were to be honest in what I think of her, I'd say acting isn't her forte). I'd say pretty much any other female actor of her generation could've had just as much fun playing it and done a better job to boot. (When I said "standout", I didn't necessarily mean they were good; just that they made the biggest impression in the movie.)
The other is Armie Hammer, playing Prince
And then there's Lily Collins, who was apparently chosen just because she looks the part. Snow White is dull, both due to Collins' performance as well as the writing. She has zero chemistry with Hammer, and their romance never stirs the heart. The seven dwarfs are fun to watch, but they're still a collection of caricatures rather than characters in their own right. There's also a late-third-act cameo by Sean Bean, and it'd be a spoiler to reveal who he plays (although it's also pretty predictable) - but the man looks positively embarrassed, tasked with injecting some gravitas into a movie that just spent 90 minutes having none. After all, this is a movie in which Nathan Lane is turned into a cockroach, then laments the fact that he had his modesty outraged by a grasshopper.
Okay, yes, it's entertaining. Yes, it's charming. Yes, its good-naturedly frothy fun is hard to resist. But it's all quite shallow; it's only funny enough to raise a chuckle but not hearty laughs, and only sweet enough to raise a genial smile but not genuine emotions. I couldn't shake the feeling that if this had been an animated film, it would've been better. It would've had more gags, prettier visuals, even better acting; it always seems as if it's being held back by the limitations of live-action productions. But even if it were animated, it would only prove that Shrek (at least the first one) did it better, and also had enough imagination to take on more than just one fairy tale. And even the Shrek series has been overshadowed recently by Disney, the grand master of modern animated fairy tale adaptations - with an assist from the Pixar brain trust. That's what I meant by damning with faint praise; it's reminiscent of DreamWorks, but not Pixar.
NEXT REVIEW: The Flowers of War
Expectations: White Hero saves Poor Pitiful Asians!