Occupy Fairy Tales
It’s astonishing how little crazy one needs to bring to a movie at the moment to make it leap out as fresh and distinctive. To look at Mirror Mirror objectively, it’s hard to find much, on the surface, that departs radically from the same-old same-old. Fantasy and fairy tales have been all the rage — again — since Harry Potter hit our screens more than a decade ago, so much so that we’re getting another Snow White movie (…and the Huntsman) in a just a couple of months. The script takes the simplest of linear narrative structures, the story is the basic hero’s journey hitting major plot points everyone who’s seen the Disney Snow White cartoon already knows, and the whole shebang might as well be rated G, it’s that ostensibly innocuous.
But this is how bland and samey movies have become: the most minor of tweaks — tweaks that wouldn’t even be tweaks at all if just the slightest bit of an adventurous spirit were tolerated in Hollywood — is all it takes for Mirror Mirror to be so wildly entertaining just by being the teensiest bit different. While, you know, also being the same.
Some of it is about director Tarsem Singh’s (Immortals, The Fall) glorious and gaudy surrealistic impressionism. The artifice of The Movies has gotten very good at pretending it’s not artifice — CGI is all about photorealism, and we criticize it when it fails on that level, and rightly so, for it is intended to present authentic solid reality to us. But the entire filmmaking discipline appears to have forgotten that there’s no reason why The Movies needs to be photorealistic! Embracing artifice, of course, isn’t automatically a good thing — Tim Burton’s tedious Alice in Wonderland was nothing so much as a coffeetable book about its own self-consciously baroque production design — but Singh is so very deft in how he creates his sweet visual fakery. He invents spaces that are most definitely artificial, as with the stagey snowy woods in which much of the story takes place, which isn’t meant to be a realistic snowy woods but an archetypal representation of such. It’s a metaphoric space, a mythic space… and it’s absolutely perfect for the deliberately archetypal spin Mirror Mirror takes.
This is in no way a practical, rational, realistic Snow White (as Huntsman looks as if it will be). It’s so very self-aware of itself as a story that even the characters within the story are aware of it… and aware of how its tropes are being turned on their head. Lily Collins’ (Abduction, Priest) lovely spunky Snow White doesn’t just rescue the handsome Prince (Armie Hammer: J. Edgar, The Social Network) — more than once — she explicitly states to him that she wants to be a princess who rescues a prince, contrary to all the books she’s read. Julia Roberts’ (Larry Crowne, Eat Pray Love) evil Queen and stepmother to Snow knows she’s the villain, and she revels in it. (Roberts has never, ever been this entertaining onscreen. She was born to play this part, and she is lucky to have found, in Singh, a director who puts to fantastic, and fantastical, use her talents for comedy.)
The mythos of fairy tales gets a modern spin, too. There’s no terror of sexuality here, which has been the undercurrent of many of Grimm tale. Instead, this is more Robin Hood, and the terror is political: the Queen has driven her subjects into poverty, whipping up fear among the people of one another and of a “Beast” that all that tax money is supposedly going to protect the realm against. Instead, the Queen uses it to throw lavish parties. The much more important part of Snow’s hero’s journey here is not to kiss the Prince — though of course she gets to do that — but to put right what the Queen has wrought.
Not only does Mirror Mirror put a young woman in the center of the action, it puts her perspective at the center of the film. Oh, but this is splendidly female-gazey, on so many levels. The sprightly script, by newcomer Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher), gives the Queen’s obsequious toady Brighton (a very funny Nathan Lane: The Nutcracker in 3D, Astro Boy) the opportunity to announce the Prince’s arrival at the Queen’s castle by describing him as “young, handsome, and semi nude.” He’s been waylaid by bandits in the woods, you see, who stole his clothes… and it’s not just the Queen who finds his beauty distracting, and says as much, but apparently Singh, too. Plenty of films feature handsome young half-naked men, and women who find them attractive, but very few films adopt the gaze of those female characters and assume that as its own default perspective. There’s nothing cheesy or lascivious in how Singh’s camera — the luscious cinematography is by Brendan Galvin (Immortals, Flight of the Phoenix) — lingers on the Prince’s distracting semi nudity, and even his distracting fully-clothedness, in a way that’s both smartly funny and pointedly not at all the usual thing. It echoes how both Snow and the Queen look upon him with desire… which is a powerfully radical thing. Most movies that purport to be aimed at female audiences about women falling in love with handsome men don’t bother to do this, don’t even appear to consider it an option. Here, where the romance is no more than only half the story, where the romance is — tee-hee! — the heroine’s reward for a quest successfully wrapped up, it’s still all seen through a woman’s eye. This is huge, and so very welcome.
But you know what? Never even mind all that. Mirror Mirror can be enjoyed simply as the big basket of nutty that it is. The Queen’s magic mirror is a thing so truly cracked that I can’t bear to spoil for you. Oh my god, the Queen’s beauty regimen is a riot of insane satire on what women will subject themselves to in the name of vanity. There are giant dwarves here, and sexy funny flirty swordfighting, and sweet forlorn heartache, and — if you stay through the credits — a Bollywood dance number.
It’s the finest, fairest, funniest, freakiest Snow White of them all.