A highly stylized and bizarrely comic version of the Snow White story. Julia Roberts is the evil stepmother with a winning smile, and Lily Collins is a feisty princess with memorable eyebrows. Mostly what you remember are the elaborate sets and surreal costumes. It's slightly mad.
Starring: Lily Collins, Julia Roberts, and Armie Hammer
Rating: Three stars out of five
Tarsem Singh's resolutely over-the-top version of the Snow White story, Mirror Mirror, is a gloriously unapologetic mash-up of fantastical set design, extravagant costumes, the Robin Hood legend and dwarfs. It's slightly mad, but maybe that's the best way to treat fairy tales: as fever dreams.
It's hard to know what children will make of all this. Mirror Mirror doesn't bother much with fulfilling the mythic -- let alone Freudian -- storytelling that makes such things compelling. There's a wicked stepmother, but she's played by Julia Roberts, which means we're prompted to be bewitched by her evil smile. The handsome prince spends much of the film with no shirt on. This is also as good a time as any to mention how a dwarf named Half Pint leers suggestively at the heroine and says, when asked to let her stay, "Maybe we should get to know her first." If he was in the Disney cartoon version, he would be Sleazy.
The prologue -- the once-upon-a-time, as narrated by Roberts' sinister (and rather vulpine) Queen -- tells a familiar tale: A girl with white skin and black hair is born to a king who is left widowed and marries a beautiful new woman. The king (Sean Bean) disappears early in the film, leaving the queen to fuss over her own appearance -- vanity, power and the attraction of the shirtless hunk are her motivating passions -- and keep Snow locked in the castle.
Snow is played by Lily Collins (The Blind Side) as a sweet innocent who nonetheless -- in one of the many twists on the traditional Grimm Brothers story -- grows into a warrior who can save herself, thanks very much. Collins, the daughter of rock drummer Phil, has been the subject of much Internet buzz because of her eyebrows, extravagant decorations the likes of which we haven't seen since Frida Kalo. However, she wears them proudly: She's a woman simultaneously with and without pluck.
One day, the handsome prince (Armie Hammer, lately seen as J. Edgar Hoover's, um, assistant) rides into the forest to be attacked by a band of giant robbers who turn out to be the dwarfs on spring-loaded stilts. "You're short and it's funny," he tells them, but the screenplay twists itself into politically correct explanations -- they're robbers because they've been unfairly rejected by society -- and makes them into stalwart heroes, although not so much that Half Pint (Mark Povinelli) gets a date with Snow.
Singh (Immortals) is more of a visual stylist than a straightforward storyteller, and the tone of Mirror Mirror is one of heightened artificiality, from the fake-looking woods to the ornate rooms of the castle, with their gold and marble and high ceilings. The dismal cobblestoned town -- overtaxed by the demanding queen -- is as grim as something in prewar Europe, even as the royals cavort in elaborate costumes (designed by the late Eiko Ishioka) of silk and brocade, with enormous bustles and soaring shoulder pads. Nathan Lane, as the queen's comical assistant, wears a coat that flares up alarmingly in the back, as if to air him out: He looks like Alice In Wonderland's white rabbit.
A costume party brings out a spooky collection of animal heads: At times, Mirror Mirror has the surreal look of something by Tim Burton, especially when the queen steps inside her liquid mirror and enters a thatched hut that seems to represent her own psyche. There, she talks to a doppelganger who resembles a masque of ruined beauty, a tack the film isn't shy about pursuing. In one scene, the queen's cosmetic treatment includes enlarging Roberts' lips with bee stings.
Mirror Mirror is mostly about such imagination. The love story has been airbrushed clean of any chemistry, and even the wicked queen has no frights. This is the family version, albeit one that ends with a Bollywood dance number. "She was pure as the driven snow, but she drifted," goes the old joke. This one drifts right over the edge.