Flat and polished is a fine condition for mirrors, not movies. There is imagination galore but no genuine magic in Mirror Mirror, a Grimmly disappointing take on Snow White's fairy tale.
Director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Immortals) is revered for crafting sumptuous visuals, and reviled when they come at the expense of whatever story he's telling. Singh may have outdone himself with Mirror Mirror, combining an eye for fantasy grandeur with a funny bone he doesn't possess.
This is a fairy tale comedy that should play the material straighter, like the narrow genre's masterpiece, The Princess Bride. Instead, the actors push their lines, expecting laughs, which is the surest way to not get them. Extravagant costumes and backdrops distract attention from a lifeless screenplay but eventually the lack of laughs can't be ignored.
Mirror Mirror begins with an impressively animated recap of Snow White's predicament: Banished to her castle by a wicked stepmother after her father the king disappears, and being played by such a vacantly pretty ingénue as Lily Collins (musician Phil's daughter). Collins conveys a properly Audrey Hepburn princess look and the acting range of a runway model. The damsel's role is always distressed.
The queen has run the kingdom into the ground, funding a lavish lifestyle with escalating taxes. After sneaking out for a tour of the squalor, Snow sides with the other 99 percent. Their relationship is further strained with the arrival of handsome Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer, perhaps auditioning for Brendan Fraser: The Dudley Do-Right Years).
Julia Roberts obviously enjoys her against-type casting as the evil queen, transforming that famous smile into a visage of vanity and cunning. She's looser than usual, even silly when called upon for that. But again, the script doesn't give her many juicy lines like the queen's let-them-eat-cake moment: "(Tell them) Bread is meat, less is more. Commoners love a good metaphor."
A few scenes about Mirror Mirror grasp the potential for fracturing a fairy tale: The queen's beauty treatment to impress Prince Alcott, with parakeet droppings, earwigs and snakes amusingly applied, and any sequence featuring the seven dwarves, a grubby gang of thieves operating on stilts, with non-Disney names like Butcher, Grub and Chuckles. More such irreverence would make Mirror Mirror a better movie.
As it is, Singh's movie is merely a pop-up oddity giving parents something besides The Hunger Games for kids to see. Coincidentally, Singh confessed to Hollywood Reporter this week that he has "just been looking specifically for material that wasn't on paper, that was not written well... I am very aware that I'm putting the cart before the donkey." Here's hoping he turns around that wagon someday.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.