Somehow, in the last year or so, storybook retellings have eclipsed lusty vampires and bleak dystopias in the pop culture landscape. We’ve got Grimm TV detectives, Little Red caught in a lupine love triangle and, the oddest of all, Cinderella as a…cyborg? While it’s always been fun to rehash favorite fables and folklore, there are currently no fewer than three Snow Whites throwing down in the Fairest Of Them All arena. And it’s no wonder. Fairy tales (especially the princess-driven ones) are such a shared part of our cultural make-up not just because Disney has been stuffing them down our throats for the past 75 years, but for a much more ancient, enduring reason. These tales present both our basest desires and long-supressed fears tied up in a tidy (if sometimes bloody) bow. But while those thoughts that gnaw at us (“What if I’m abandoned by my loving parents?” “What if I’ve grown too old to be relevant?”) are surely present in Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s Mirror Mirror, they’ve been frosted over with vivid marzipans and, if you can stand the sweetness, it’s a pretty delicious dish.
Dhandwar’s confection of a film doesn’t deviate much from the standard fairly tale version of “Snow White.” The film opens opens with an exquisite little animated sequence narrated by the Evil Queen telling of a beautiful child, her loving father, the King, and his injudicious second marriage. And though the “Once Upon A Time-ing” is peppered with pert little asides (“They named her Snow White…probably because that was the most pretentious name they could think of”), what follows is the usual fairytale stuff and nonsense: stranded in the woods, too cute to die, seven dwarves and a rather dim, but handsome prince. Sure, this Snow has a little more spunk that usual and the Evil Queen deals in eye rolls and sarcasm rather than snarling threats, but the happy endings comes right on cue and, really, there’s nothing wrong with that.
First things first, let’s address the exquisitely made-up elephant in the room. How awful is Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen? Put down your pitchforks, she’s not awful at all. Sure her accent is spotty (and a weird choice given several other leads speak in good old fashion Americun), but after years of watching Roberts awkwardly try to convince us that she’s sweet, lovable, or daffy, it’s refreshing to see her slip into a role that seems closer to home. The woman has charisma coming out of her ears and she’s truly delightful as the haughtiest, most petulant and well-tended creature in the room. Even if she does sometimes look like a sofa. Lilly Collins is perfectly lovely as Snow White and works well in the role because that’s all she’s asked to be: lovely with the merest dollop of sass. And unlike her Snow White And The Hunstman counterpart Kristen Stewart, Collins is not off-putting in her limitations. Hers is a simple, warm, engaging performance that outshines even the most vigorously sullen lip-bitting. Likewise, Armie Hammer is suitably handsome as Prince Alcott and Nathan Lane does exactly what one hires Nathan Lane to do.
But the acting is not why you or anyone should go see a Tarsem Singh Dhandwar movie. You should go see a Tarsem Singh Dhandwar movie if you enjoy orgasming through your eye sockets. The man is a visual genius and has, throughout his career, never once failed to deliver when it comes to costumes, set pieces and special effects. From the golden halls of Olympus (Immortals), to the opulent mind of a madman (The Cell) to, best of all, the fertile imagination of a young child (The Fall), his films are equally (and sometimes more) enjoyable with the sound off. If you stripped Tim Burton of all his Hot Topic gothicism and troubling necrophilia and instead soaked his films in golds and eye-popping hues, you’d come pretty close to the heightened reality of Tarsem Singh Dhandwar. His obvious obsession with costuming comes through not only in the Evil Queen’s beruffled wardrobe and the brightly colored courtiers who would put the garish colors of Panem’s capitol to shame, but in a cute little dress-up montage where Snow ditches her princess gear for Ren Fair pirate wench number complete with a kicky little ponytail. All the better to rescue her prince in, my dears.
So it’s all here, snow, glass, apple and all. And, oh yes, true love’s kiss. It’s refreshingly fun without any snarky “hip” or “modern” references that might take you out of the story book feel. Nobody raps, slangs or break dances. Sure, there’s a completely bananas Bollywood dance number at the end, but even that feels quaint in comparison to the usual “edginess” that plague fairytales nowadays. If you’re looking for Freudian interpretations, overtly feminist revisions or meta snark, you’ve come to the wrong “Snow White.” Does the film feel overlong? Absolutely. Why have one attack in the snowy woods scene when you can have four or five? Does the slapstick get a little tiresome? For adults, almost certainly. But it’s not really for them, is it? It’s for the kids, and the kids at heart. It’s a shiny little candied apple of a film. Go ahead. One little bite won’t hurt you.