For all its pomp and fabulosity, Mirror Mirror is actually Tarsem Singh's most minimalistic effort, a dialed-down game board of elaborate pieces that's akin to the human chess set captained by evil Queen Clementianna (Julia Roberts). Like Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella with just a dash of Lars von Trier's Dogville, his rendering of this revisionist fairy tale is less cinematic than it is purposefully theatrical. The queen's ornately decorated, yet largely sparse bed chamber looks out to a sky that's basically a moving matte painting, and even the forest is a simple backdrop of black and white, full of nothing but snow and rocks that mirror endless birch trees. More than anything previously seen in a Tarsem film, the production design (here by frequent collaborator Tom Foden) appears obsessively placed and inorganic, with a near-palpable wariness of human contact. The visuals work because the director is knowingly embracing a new twist on his aesthetic, withholding in more ways than one for his first fairy tale that isn't chiefly aimed at adults. There's never a doubt that he had a strong vision for this movie, and it's hard to think of a stylistic maverick better suited to spicing up a dusty fantasy, but even he falls victim to tonal inconsistency, which begins with the script by newbie writers Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller, and spreads to affect most of the project's realization.
In a requisite prologue that doles out just how much this tale will mangle the Grimm brothers' original, the queen narrates a rather beautiful animated sequence (with porcelain-doll versions of Snow White and her kingly father), intermittently dropping her English accent to crack wise in blunt, fries-on-the-side American. Such is the Shrek-ian angle that Mirror Mirror aims for, subverting storybook traditions with insults like accusing Snow White's parents of coming up with a terribly pretentious baby name. To a degree, the irony aids the film in fending off self-seriousness, and Roberts, especially, takes a perfect approach to the material. One eruption of that trademark laugh and it's clear why she was cast. Even in the queen's wickedest moments, the superstar never drops the levity or breaks her madly uppity demeanor, making hers a unique and bubbly crackpot of a villain. Nathan Lane is also well chosen as the queen's groveling servant, whose stance as a cockroach grows more literal as the film progresses. But there's a love story that has to be told here too, between the angelic, grown-up Snow (Lily Collins) and Prince Andrew Alcott (Armie Hammer), whose dashing entrance to the kingdom is briefly thwarted by the seven dwarves, reimagined as plundering renegades. Despite some giggly slapstick involving the queen's attempt to steal the prince (thanks to a "puppy love" spell, we get to see Hammer lick Roberts's face), the movie is never all that funny, and with love bumped off the priority list, it's not that romantic either. It's left in a kind of pixie-dust purgatory, where magic is overtaken by a sense of complacency.
For every punchline the queen serves up, there's an over-earnest moment with Snow White and her dwarves, who whip the banished princess into swashbuckling shape while she convinces each to be more Robin Hood and less Captain Hook. For every feminist-lite, bathos-heavy epiphany Snow White reaches, there's a contrastingly sardonic touch waiting in the wings, like a random Mr. Clean sparkle added to Hammer's pearly whites, and a wildly misplaced meta gag about fairy-tale focus groups. Even Tarsem can't balance his sweep with his sarcasm, seeing epic aerial shots sucked dry of impact thanks to overarching jokery. The film is best when it cheekily merges its humor with its spectacle, such as a scene in which the prince is so fed up with the frilly costumes that he tears off his sleeve cuffs, or a fantastic makeover sequence that sees the queen get a bird-poop facial, bee-sting lip injections, and some inexplicable mealworm massage. Too often, though, the director seems to be arbitrarily following his screenwriters' lead, adding elements like a Bollywood-esque closing number that feels like the ultimate tacked-on flourish.
Collaboration has long been one of Tarsem's better strengths, a virtue reflected in his penchant for mixing multicultural visuals (the exterior of the queen's castle looks like the Taj Mahal, while the inside is dressed with French furniture). Mirror Mirror marks the filmmaker's final partnership with Eiko Ishioka, the extraordinary costume designer who worked on all his films before passing away in January (the movie is dedicated to her memory). As usual, the duds comprise an integral part of the attraction, nodding to Disney's slitted sleeves and consuming skirts while boldly pushing the boundaries of imagination. The dwarves are given accordion stilts that extend to make them taller than men, while Collins, Roberts, and Hammer each get a moment to swoop a magnificent cloak. A centerpiece ball may well be seen as Ishioka's swan song, filled as it is with one breathtaking frock after another. Also teaming again with Immortals lenser Brendan Galvin, Tarsem faithfully thinks outside the proverbial box, unabashedly adhering to a fantasy mentality and vividly retooling such things as the magic mirror, which is embodied as a moralistic twin of the queen herself, living in a shack on some otherworldly lake. But due to so much incongruity, Mirror Mirror never reads like an essential retelling, and during a scene in which the queen's reflective double attacks the dwarves with magic marionettes, the action is paired with the notion that Tarsem has never seemed weaker as a master puppeteer.