Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
The plot starts off exciting enough: a motley group steals a rare gem but two of the thieves doublecross bad guy Patrick (Sean Bean) and take off with the precious stone. Jumping ahead 10 years we meet Dr. Nathan Conrad (Michael Douglas) a prominent New York psychiatrist with a loving wife (Famke Janssen) and an adorable 8-year-old daughter (Skye McCole Bartusiak). Life is good until Nathan is summoned by a colleague (Oliver Platt) to examine a disturbed young woman Elisabeth (Brittany Murphy). The next day he discovers the ruthless Patrick has kidnapped his daughter. The only way to get her back is to extract a six-digit number locked away in Elisabeth's troubled mind a number leading to the gem. But then the film lapses into the predictable: Nathan races to save his daughter and try to solve the puzzle of the traumatic event which sent Elisabeth off into la-la land.
Douglas certainly has had plenty of moments to shine in his career but this isn't one of them. He plays it pretty straight and boring leaving nothing to let him stretch his acting abilities. Following along the same lines Bean another fine actor who rarely gets to break out of the bad guy role plays a cookie-cutter villain with nothing more than his menacing looks and voice to keep him going. Murphy's performance as the complex Elisabeth has been talked about as Oscar bait-but we are not sure why. What starts off as an intriguing portrayal of yet another mentally disturbed character--her other being her role in Girl Interrupted which was much more interesting--dissolves into a lost-little-girl syndrome. Actually the two characters that stand out are Bartusiak as the spunky daughter and Jennifer Esposito (Summer of Sam) as a detective hot on the jewel thieves' trail.
Word starts off with such a bang you immediately get involved and think it may actually be a good movie. Director Gary Felder takes us right into Conrad's happy world and then turns it upside down when Conrad realizes what he must do to get his daughter back. It may be hard to believe Patrick after spending the last 10 years in jail would know that Elisabeth holds the key to finding the gem but the cat-and-mouse game Elisabeth plays with Dr. Conrad is fascinating. This plot device could have been taken into so many different directions especially since Douglas and Murphy have a very interesting rapport. Even the subplot involving the little girl and her attempts to escape while her mother with a broken leg tries desperately to find her could have been taken further. But the film goes ahead and ends predictably and we're left saying how much better we could have made it.