Fairest to Middling, by David Bax
Tarsem Singh directing an adaptation of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” should seem like a no-brainer. There is perhaps no director working today who is as admirably preoccupied with visual beauty. Since this is essentially the tale of a woman punished by the world for being so pretty, it seems like a natural fit. Unfortunately, Tarsem (as he is simply credited here) misunderstands or underutilizes his own strengths and attempts to tell a version of the story that is beyond his grasp.
Things begin familiarly enough. A king and queen have a beautiful daughter named Snow White. The queen dies and the king remarries to an evil, vain woman who consults a magic mirror to confirm her beauty. Her jealousy stoked when the mirror tells her Snow White’s looks have surpassed hers, she orders her stepdaughter killed in the woods. Snow survives and is taken in by a group of dwarves. After that, the story’s elements change. The prince shows up earlier than usual. The queen attempts to seduce him. There’s a magical flying wolf-dragon thing. It’s all over the place.
When a certain performance in a film is bad, you blame the actor. When all the performances are lacking, there is no one to blame but the director. With reliable professionals like Julia Roberts (the queen) and Armie Hammer (the prince), as well as smaller turns from Michael Lerner and Nathan Lane, there’s no good excuse for the characters that people this story to be so lame and seemingly uncomfortable. Still, Roberts does deserve the blame for at least one aspect of her performance. An actor of her experience should have known that a British accent was beyond her and not even tried it. Just listening to it is embarrassing.
Speaking of embarrassing, this film is – or at least attempts to be – a comedy. Tarsem’s films have never included many laughs and this one exemplifies why. His sense of humor seems to be a construction, a simulacrum of other humorous things he’s seen. The jokes in Mirror Mirror aren’t patently awful. They’re barely even jokes. The actors are straining hard, like a rookie improv troupe, to make forced sarcasm and anachronistic references to focus groups in any way funny. In every case, they are pitifully unsuccessful.
Even the things at which Tarsem does excel are in conspicuously short supply here. Most of the visual design is pretty but in a boring Walt Disney way, not in the visionary and sometimes terrifyingly bizarre way we should expect from this filmmaker. There are exceptions – members of the royal court wearing hats made to look like ships, complete with working cannons; the queen’s magical retreat where she goes to plot; Snow and the dwarves battling giant marionettes – but they are so buried in aesthetic fluff that they hardly register. Only in one aspect does the film manage to repeatedly awe. Mirror Mirror is the last film for which legendary Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka created the costumes. Despite the gargantuan skirts and wigs being wholly impractical, they are enveloping in a way that is more cinematic than anything else in the frame. You may, as I did, occasionally realize that you have missed actual dialogue because you were contemplating the stitching on a dress.
Ishioka, who died earlier this year, deserves credit for shining in a way that Tarsem wouldn’t or couldn’t. The director apparently had his focus on making a faux-feminist version of what is admittedly a very antiquated tale in terms of gender politics. Yet any feminism present in this film is purely facile. Sure, it’s nice that this is a Snow White who can fight for herself and is as likely to save the prince as to be saved by him. But the gains of that approach are undone by the fact that this is still a story that comes down to Snow being a better person because she is prettier. Perhaps a better actor than the relatively inexperienced Lily Collins could have made something out of it but, as I’ve demonstrated, this film seems to have been out of the reach of even talented performers.
Tarsem could have made a good film if he’d focused only on the basest elements of beauty and victory in a way that our primeval selves must respond to. He did just that with last year’s underrated Immortals. This is the rare movie that could have been better were it more shallow. Instead, he aimed out of his depth, both with the comedy and the message and left us with Mirror Mirror, a film that is superficial in bad ways, not beautiful ones.