In apparent celebration of the 15th anniversary of Dante's Peak and Volcano, Hollywood will try to sell you Snow White twice in two months this year, and at first glance Tarsem Singh's Mirror Mirror looked like the obvious loser. In one of those rare movie trailers that reliably elicits audible groans (a mantle now passed to Dark Shadows), Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane trade insipid throwaway jokes while millions of dollars in art direction sits around doing nothing to stop them. The only obvious sin of June's self-serious adventure Snow White and the Huntsman is having hired Kristen Stewart, the Starest of Them All; Mirror Mirror, on the other hand, was taxing enough in 90 seconds to portend a catastrophe at feature length.
Yet Tarsem's semi-sweet fairy tale is somehow as charming as it is flawed. (Which is to say, it can be very, very charming.) Screenwriters Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller have outfitted the Brothers Grimm's classic tale with the sturdy narrative it's always lacked, now pitting Snow White (Lily Collins) against her stepmother the Queen (Roberts) for the affections of a dullard Prince (Armie Hammer).
These are major changes, obviously, but despite revisionist flourishes—the seven dwarves as stilt-wearing bandits, for instance, or the subversion of key plot points to suit the film's cheeky gender politics—the story retains the posture of a classic, and the intent is there on the page that it be mounted with according flair, playing out as half Disney cartoon, half Technicolor fever-dream throwback.
This stagy whimsy pairs well with Tarsem's crisp aesthetic, and within minutes of Mirror Mirror's single old Hollywood-style title card, he's deep into the most accessible material of his career. Thanks in part to the straightforward, only occasionally botched emotional beats, it's his loosest, most personable film, characterized even in its darker moments by an unserious sweetness. The seven dwarves, for instance, are well-served not only as individual characters but as human beings, while Snow White takes every opportunity to express an inner beauty befitting her status. Both are wonderful tactics for enriching a story we thought we knew.
The film is not short on beauty of any kind. From galas at the Queen's palace to tracking shots through a snowbound birch forest, Mirror Mirror is tailored to Tarsem's sumptuous visual tendencies, enabled by an artistic team including the late costume designer Eiko Ishioka, whose career-capping work here will be winning awards through next spring. Yet unlike the dreamscapes of The Cell or the stories from his underseen labor of love The Fall, Tarsem's imaginative sets and costumes are there to serve Mirror Mirror's story, and not the other way around. (It will come as no surprise that the movie's more fantastical sequences employ CG, and that it invariably clashes with what Tarsem has achieved with real-world beauty.) And as the visual novelty sputters in the film's second half, its fatal flaw gets harder to overlook.
No, it's not Julia Roberts specifically. She's not good in the film, at least not like the radiant, stardom-ready Collins or Mark Povenelli, as a smitten dwarf. But her obligatory scenery chewing is as tolerable as ever. The problem is that the insecure Queen and her lapdog Brighton (Lane, overdoing it as usual) are positioned so centrally in the story that their glib, forever unfunny antics dictate a tone that no one else seems to have signed off on but everyone has to live with. The Queen is hardly expected to be likable, but she should at least be entertaining, especially if you're ponying up that Julia Roberts money.
It's a dire miscalculation on Wallack and Keller's part, and a disservice to an otherwise well-shaped script, if there is an "otherwise" to consider beyond such a pall. The further into the woods Snow White and her companions get, the closer we feel to the pleasing family film Mirror Mirror could and should have been, but sooner or later we'll cut to the Queen, and everything is ruined; we're back to that awful trailer, dodging half-written jokes half-delivered by Nathan Lane.