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 biggest millennium party is definitely not going to take place at your local cineplex this week. Taking into account the pre-millennial craze suffered by shifty audiences coast to coast, Hollywood is taking a low-key, market-testing approach to the week's more recognizable releases.
The Denzel Washington vehicle "The Hurricane" will make its limited-release debut Wednesday. A favorite of critics, the well-reviewed film based on the true story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter features an award buzz turn by Denzel Washington as the titular boxer who is wrongly accused of the murders of three white men in 1966.
Also hitting the theater mid-week is Sony Pictures Classics' "The Third Miracle." Starring Ed Harris and Anne Heche, it is a story of lost faith and renewed hope set in present-day Chicago.
For those wanting to journey to the sardonic dark side of America before the turn of the millennium, there're two indie favorites from Lions Gate: the adaptation of Denis Johnson's "Jesus' Son," with Billy Crudup staking the lead as the nihilistic, angst-ridden junkie traveling through the post-war drugscape of 1970s America; and renowned Errol Morris' ("The Thin Blue Line," "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control") latest offering "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.," a psychological profile of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., the man best known, and most hated, for his involvement with the Holocaust denial movement.
On a lighter (and a glaringly Technicolor) note, Disney will usher in the new millennium with "Fantasia 2000," a newly restored version of its 1940 animated classic that blends the creative innovation of the original with the technical capability of today's technology. "Fantasia" purists will not only be able to view the timeless musical in a visually and aurally enhanced setting via IMAX technology, they will also be treated to six new computer-generated musical segments specially created for the occasion.
Below is a list of all the films opening this week.
Opening Wednesday, Dec. 29, 1999
"The Hurricane" (Universal) -- Based on a true story, Denzel Washington stars as Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the middleweight boxer who was wrongly convicted for the murders of three white men in 1966. Spanning over 20 years, the film follows the innocent boxer's fight for justice that leads to his eventual exoneration. Deborah Kara Unger, John Hannah and Liev Schreiber co-star as the activists who champion his cause.
"Jesus' Son" (Lions Gate) -- Billy Crudup plays an itinerant junkie stumbling across 1970s America, searching for meaning in everything from drug and sex to chance encounters with anonymous strangers. From rural Iowa to arid Arizona, his nihilistic journey weaves together interconnected stories of loss, angst and isolation into a jarring collage of an American subculture. Samantha Morton, Holly Hunter, Denis Leary and Dennis Hopper co-star. Based on a collection of short stories by Denis Johnson.
"Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." (Lions Gate) -- From groundbreaking documentary filmmaker Errol Morris comes another distinctive portrait of human extremes. The subject of this fascinating portrait is the infamous Fred A. Leuchter Jr., the erstwhile engineer of death row technology who disclaimed the occurrence of the Holocaust in 1988. Rather than being the crowning achievement of his career, his alignment with the Holocaust denial movement instead ruined his life.
"The Third Miracle" (SPC) -- Ed Harris plays a disillusioned Catholic priest sent to Chicago to investigate the life of a deceased woman who's under consideration for sainthood after a religious miracle. His religious conviction and faith further erode as the skeptical priest finds himself increasingly attracted to the woman's daughter, played by Anne Heche.
Opening Saturday, Jan. 1, 2000
"Fantasia 2000" (Disney) -- The 1940 Disney animated classic returns with an added touch of technological magic this time around. Combining traditional cell-animation with computer-generated animation, the musical gala features six new segments -- each created by different directors and creative teams. The renovated Mouse House favorite is also the first animated feature to be specially formatted for IMAX theaters.