Mirror Mirror (2012)
[Editor’s note: Welcome back to the Agony Booth’s ongoing look at the Mirror Universe episodes that gave the site its… hah! Just kidding. This movie has nothing to do with the Star Trek episode of the same name. Nor does it have anything to do with the Baywatch episode of the same name. But you can rest assured that every piece of filmed entertainment titled “Mirror, Mirror” will one day be featured on this site.]
Mirror Mirror, the first of the dueling Snow White movies of 2012, tells an updated version of the famous Grimm’s fairy tale with Julia Roberts as the evil Queen, and relative no-name Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) as Snow White. You may remember Collins from The Mortal Instruments, but probably don’t. It’s nice to see a lesser known actor in the starring role here, as real life fame can often overshadow a character. But from the look of her eyebrows, the director desperately wanted to cast Audrey Hepburn.
Beware, because this review may contain spoilers for the story of Snow White, though I think that after 300 years, all plot twists are fair game.
The beginning treats us to a beautifully animated prologue where Roberts narrates the story of a Princess named Snow White, whose mother died during childbirth. The widowed king finds a new wife, and then later travels into the forest to fight an evil beast, never to return. In his absence, the new queen totally becomes a typical wicked stepmother, locking Snow White away in the castle while she rules the kingdom as an evil tyrant.
Fast forward to present day, where the Queen is still being a tyrant. It’s also Snow White’s 18th birthday, and with the encouragement of the servants, she dares to leave the castle without seeking permission from the Queen.
In the forest, Snow comes across a Prince and his manservant hanging from a tree and cuts them loose. This is Prince Alcott (played by Armie Hammer of The Lone Ranger… fame?), who was out looking for adventure. But instead, he was robbed of all his possessions (including his clothes) by a band of seven giants, who turned out to be seven dwarves on spring-loaded stilts.
There’s an obvious attraction between Snow White and the Prince, but she continues on her way to a nearby village. There, she learns the Queen has taxed all the residents into abject poverty, under the pretense that their hard-earned gold is being used to protect the kingdom from the evil beast that killed the king.
Meanwhile, the Queen consults her magic mirror, which in this version is just a paler version of herself. Mirror Julia tells the Queen that she must marry a rich man, and quickly, because the kingdom is nearly destitute.
Right on cue, Prince Alcott appears on the castle doorstep. The Queen immediately begins trying to impress him, using the villagers’ money to throw a big costume bash, where the Prince and Snow White encounter each other once again.
Snow White attempts to enlist the Prince’s help against the Queen, then tries to assert her place as rightful leader of the kingdom, so she’s banished to the forest and left for dead. She’s soon saved by the Seven Dwarves, who not only revive her, but give her lessons in their thieving ways, putting her through a crash course of sword fighting, grifting, and dressing up as Sexy Pirate Lady for Halloween.
Back at the castle, the Queen’s attempts to seduce the Prince are failing, so she resorts to a magical love potion. Soon, Snow White and the dwarves get word that Prince Alcott intends to marry the Queen. They crash the wedding and kidnap the Prince, and Snow White breaks the love spell with a kiss. The Queen then retaliates by sending the beast of the forest after them, so Snow White goes off to face the creature alone, which leads to the expected comeuppance for the Queen and a literal storybook ending.
I went into this film not knowing much about it beyond what’s on the poster; the animated prologue certainly infers that it’s a straight-faced fantasy. So you can understand my confusion when the movie proper began. Why do the sets look so cheap? Why does every outdoor scene look like it was filmed on a soundstage? Why is Julia Roberts talking like that? Is that… Nathan Lane? Yes, yes it is.
By the time the Queen is gnashing her teeth at Snow White and delivering bizarrely anachronistic dialogue, I was scratching my head. As it turns out, Mirror Mirror is a comedy. And I don’t mean that in the “this movie is so bad it’s funny” way, I mean it actually attempts to be a comedy.
As a result, the film is… a bit confused. Not confusing; the story itself pans out more or less like the fairy tale it’s based on. It just feels like it can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a serious fantasy. But that was hardly the only problem with Mirror Mirror.
Fairy tales are a part of our collective storytelling culture. They speak to primal needs and desires in their society of origin. However. Fairy tales are old. And with these stories come a lot of… problematic material. Which is why when you reboot or revitalize an old story for modern audiences, it’s necessary to assess what’s intrinsic to the story and what’s outdated racist/sexist/homophobic garbage.
Case in point: Snow White is white. Like super white. The movie can’t stop telling you how white she is and how that’s just awesome. Did I mention she’s white? White, white, white. The story also takes a swing at the obsessive beautification rituals some women go through to be “the fairest of them all”, via the Queen character.
This might have had some merit if Snow White weren’t caked in makeup and primped to perfection herself. Of course, in her case it’s all supposedly “natural”. So working hard for beauty is bad, and you just need to make sure you’re born the epitome of Caucasian flawlessness. Got it.
Snow White in general is a mess. Her personality is that she’s pretty and nice, and that’s about it. The first half of the movie, she barely does anything, and events simply happen around her. Seriously, she’s like a conch shell that gets passed from character to character when it’s their time to speak. My best guess here is that the writer was afraid to push her too far out of her archetype. And Prince Alcott falls in love with her in true fairy tale fashion because she’s super-duper pretty, and the movie makes no apologies for that. Although the Prince is a different story altogether.
Prince Alcott, if I can be totally honest here, was an absolute delight. Mirror Mirror is muddled and weird, but I’ll be damned if the Prince didn’t make me smile. Not because he’s a statuesque hero charging into danger, but because he’s an unabashed dickhead laughing at other people’s shortcomings. The movie surprised me by presenting a perfect representation of royalty: a privileged, smug, fancy lad who’s completely out of touch with the outside world. And it is gloriously hammy. At one point, Alcott actually exclaims “ha-HA!” while sword fighting. It makes me wish the movie had just been about the Prince and his manservant.
Unfortunately, that’s where the positives end. While everyone else is dancing to the comedy tune, Snow White plays it straight and never gets to jump in on the jokes, making her seem totally out of place in her own movie. In the beginning, she’s so passive and meek it’s hard to tell what the colorful and animated Prince sees in her at all. And once she finally starts to come into her own, he’s already in love with her for some reason.
There’s also an uncomfortable subplot with a dwarf who’s infatuated with Snow. So in every scene where she’s lovey-dovey with the Prince, he’s writhing in anguish just off-screen, which is of course played for laughs because LOL he’s short.
There are a few meager attempts to put a new twist on the “damsel in distress” motif of the fairy tale, but really, it’s too little too late. Snow White still plays Suzie Homemaker for the dwarves, and still puts herself in danger and then needs to be saved by her prince, even as the movie desperately insists that’s not what’s happening. And when it was over, I was left with a feeling of “what did I just watch?”
Overall, Mirror Mirror is an atonal hodgepodge of genres. It’s not funny enough to be considered comedy, while also refusing to take itself seriously enough to be real fantasy. The evil Queen, despite a great performance by Julia Roberts, is a one-dimensional baddie with no real motive. Snow is equally one-dimensional as a perfect-faced angel. The Prince is admittedly hilarious at times, though he all but disappears from the movie once the tone delves balls deep into pure cartoon slapstick. Why? Why was this movie so awkward?
As I asked this question, the credits rolled, and Lily Collins began to sing an Indian-inspired pop tune, and the entire cast launched into a choreographed dance routine.
I was stunned and bewildered, until the director’s name appeared on screen: Tarsem (credited here under his full name Tarsem Singh Dhandwar), who also directed The Cell and Immortals, was born in India.
And then it all made sense: Mirror Mirror is essentially a Bollywood film without the songs. In that respect, the tone and framing of the story make a lot more sense. Once I absorbed that bit of information, I was better able to grasp what they were going for. Unfortunately, I still can’t recommend this movie, unless you’re a big fan of fairy tale-themed films or just like watching the Lone Ranger laugh at dwarves.
[—This review contains additional material by Dr. Winston O’Boogie.]