Of all the Brothers Grimm tales, "Snow White" is second only to "Cinderella" as fodder for films, whether adapted straight up or reimagined almost beyond recognition. Still, while it looks as if there are no Cinderellas due out this year, "Mirror Mirror" is only the first of two "Snow Whites"; "Snow White and the Huntsman" comes out on June 1.
Julia Roberts heads the cast here, not as Snow White, but rather as the queen. (The actress may be plucky, but she's not crazy.) Given that she also serves as narrator, the opening – where her recitation of the back story is illustrated with puppets and animation – suggests that the movie may follow her side of the story, à la "Wicked" and other Gregory Maguire novels.
Soon, however, the focus shifts to Snow herself (Lily Collins, daughter of Phil), who is turning 18 – and has never been outside the walls of the castle. The queen regards her with utter contempt, and at first glance, the audience might as well. She is a timid little mouse: Even her luminous beauty – featuring a complexion white enough to make alabaster look dim – is not an adequate substitute for a personality.
The rest of the story follows one of Hollywood's standard arcs: The heroine comes into her own, learning her own worth. In this case, her transformation is overseen by a household of seven vertically challenged highwaymen, who share a little cottage in the woods, and by handsome, if slightly oblivious, Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer). Meanwhile, of course, the queen is scheming to kill Snow and seduce the prince, who, in addition to being a hunk, is wealthy enough to prop up her nearly bankrupt kingdom, thus enabling her to continue squandering the national wealth to indulge her own vanity.
"Mirror Mirror" was directed by Tarsem Singh, whose extraordinary visual imagination is almost matched by his disregard for plot and narrative. His debut feature, "The Cell," had awkward thriller trappings, designed primarily to showcase the visuals. His second – and best – film, "The Fall," at least justified its narrative problems by presenting the majority of its material as a story being improvised for a 5-year-old by an injured soldier.
Singh's biggest hit, last year's "Immortals," not only had gibberish for a plot, but also forced him to restrain his visual style somewhat by slavishly emulating the look of "300."
He would seem to be a perfect choice for this sort of project: The original fairy tale not only provides a basic story and structure but also gives an excuse for outlandish images. But "Snow White" takes place in an imaginary land that manages to wander all over the map. Singh and screen-writers Marc Klein, Jason Keller, and Melissa Wallack confuse things by interpolating elements from "Beauty and the Beast," "Cinderella," and everywhere else. They only just spare us the kitchen sink.
The costumes and design are gorgeous enough to distract us from the wildly erratic tone – some of the time. All the long shots have a dreamy richness reminiscent of Alexandr Ptushko's Soviet fantasy films of the 1950s and '60s. When the camera is in closer, there is an unapologetically studio-bound feel; you can sense the soundstage around you.
Roberts is good, but she chooses to underplay, not bringing much brio to her character's evil. Hammer channels Brendan Fraser, whose former turf – dim, lovable cartoon characters – he is likely to inherit. But he isn't Fraser's match in physical comedy; the scenes where he thinks he's a dog – don't ask – are awkwardly staged and paced. The movie's comic universe – moderately broad to start – is suddenly invaded by the spirit of the Three Stooges, but without Larry, Moe, and Curly's exquisitely honed timing.
Collins is radiant throughout, evoking memories of Audrey Hepburn, circa "Roman Holiday," but slightly less waifish; it's impossible to imagine Hepburn doing the swordplay and acrobatics Collins handles smoothly. But her performance makes the character a little less likable than intended. It's a relief when, having left the castle, she stops cowering. But her emerging self is at first spoiled, pushy, and downright discourteous. Worse yet, there is a trace of a condescending smirk lurking within her triumphant smile. Grade: C (Rated PG for some fantasy action and mild, rude humor.)