Deep Impact and Armageddon. Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. Braveheart and Rob Roy. How is it that two movies about similar things trip over each other at the multiplex?
For whatever reason, Snow White is launching her movie comeback in 2012, with two separate takes on the legendary tale: newly released Mirror Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman, due out this summer. In 2013, The Order of the Seven will put a kung-fu spin on the same story.
There's usually one clear winner in this doppelganger derby: Armageddon, Tombstone, Braveheart. Five or 10 years from now, Mirror Mirror might be the also-ran, the Wyatt Earp of Snow White flicks. The first reason is economic: It has been released in the shadow of The Hunger Games. The second reason is that the film is not all that strong. The third? Speculation: Snow White and the Huntsman kind of looks badass.
Director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Immortals) could be an inspired choice for a Snow White reboot, but as a director trying to rub two sticks together to make The Princess Bride, he's a long shot. Tarsem is known for evocative visuals—like great color and interesting cinematography—and it usually looks like his movies took decades to put together. That's one of the things missing in Mirror Mirror, which is a surprise, because with the costumes and the opportunity to create a living, breathing fairy tale, this should look spectacular. It still looks good, but in a very standard, expected way.
Another element out of whack is the sense of humor, which has never been Tarsem's strength. In fact, there's no evidence in his films that he even possesses a sense of humor. Mirror Mirror goes for anachronistic irony a few times (at one point, a character says a woman can't save a man because the traditional ending has been "focus-grouped"), but only enough to make you wonder why it doesn't happen more often. The tone is somewhere between melodrama and outright spoof, though it primarily plays as a comedy.
As Snow White, Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) is quite radiant. Snow White is not a terribly challenging role, but Collins certainly has the look of a fairy-tale princess. Julia Roberts plays against type as Snow White's stepmother, the bitchy queen who will stop at nothing to remain the fairest of them all, even if it means killing Snow. It should be a much meatier role than it is; a chance for Roberts to pull out all the stops is wasted here.
More engaging than entertaining, Mirror Mirror is ultimately carried by its seven dwarves. They don't have the Disney names, and introduce themselves instead as Napoleon, Half Pint, Grub, Grimm, Wolf, Butcher and Chuckles. What becomes clear while watching the actors who portray the dwarves is that this movie should really be about them. They're funny; they have incredible chemistry for a group of seven (most movies are lucky to get two people to click); and they're the film's real innovation.
The familiar elements of Snow White are all here in some form or another. The Prince (Armie Hammer) plays a more significant role than in the Disney animated classic; Hammer is sturdy and occasionally funny in the part. But Mirror Mirror is undone by not knowing what kind of comedy it wants to be. It dips its toe in the water of slightly subversive humor once or twice, tends to veer too broadly at other times, and has some safe family jokes.
In a word, this film is clumsy. There are a lot of reasons why it should be better, and many examples of how it could be worse. Its identity crisis proves impossible to solve, even with the benefit of gazing into that famous mirror on the wall.