We’re still licking our wounds from Tarsem Singh’s hideous Immortals, so forgive us if Mirror Mirror’s disarming fun comes as a bit of a shock. Singh looked ready to double down on The Suck with a revamped version of a classic tale that Walt Disney delivered pretty definitively 75 years ago. But lo and behold, he not only finds his own groove for the story, but he does so in a way that seems both contemporary and timeless. And he does it with Julia Roberts in the lead. Miracles really do happen.
I’ve never been fond of Roberts for a number of reasons, but her take on the Evil Queen here may constitute a career high. She plays the role as a self-aware diva: all entitlement and snarky put-downs with tongue rammed firmly in check. Her measured grandiosity fits in perfectly with Singh’s sumptuous production design. Roberts isn’t so much an inhabitant of this colorful fairy-tale universe as its living avatar, and with fierce comic timing at her disposal, she absolutely dominates the screen.
Against that, poor Lilly Collins doesn’t stand a chance. She’s sweet and demure, as Snow White should be, and the script gives her plenty of Girl Power moments to feast on, but she lacks the experience to rock this party the way Roberts can. Her princely paramour Armie Hammer has much better material to work with: talking a good game but unable to handle so much as a single midget attack. His gallant doofus routine scores some of the film’s biggest laughs, but he still retains a noble core, allowing the love story to quietly flourish beneath the gags.
That’s vital for Mirror Mirror; otherwise it might descend into mindless farce. The characters routinely switch back and forth between modern speech and fairy tale-ese, the jokes are as postmodern as they come, and everything we expect about it gets turned on its ear. We know the tale so well that we take a lot of it for granted, allowing Singh to riff on our expectations with gleeful abandon. His satirical mischief appears in every element – from the seven dwarves reimagined as steampunk highwaymen to a magic mirror that may have its mistress’s number – and delivers some very funny moments in the process.
But underneath it all, the classic tropes hold true. We buy into the scenario and the characters despite their obvious status as cultural constructs because the emotions involved are still recognizable. The Queen’s vanity, the prince’s nobility, Snow White’s earnestness… all of them survive the camp overtones and deliberate satire, and even thrive in the film’s best moments. That’s a tough balance to strike, especially with such opulent sets and the omnipresent specter of Disney looming just over the horizon.
Mirror Mirror can’t hope to compete with the animated version, of course, and it’s smart enough not to try. Instead, it ekes out its own territory – free of all comparisons and connotations – and flourishes quite happily as a result. It’s utter fluff from start to finish, but its sugar-coated trappings never wear thin and Singh keeps the eye candy from devouring the performers whole. It wouldn’t work without Roberts, one of the few stars iconic enough to thrive in such surroundings. (A dash of good old-fashioned charm on her part doesn’t hurt.) It proves a winning combination, suitable for families without boring the teen set and relying on an evergreen hipness instead of stale pop-culture jokes for its laughs. Low expectations might have helped – I was braced for a flat-out disaster – but Mirror Mirror leaps above them so completely that all previous assumptions become moot. The film is a delight… and it doesn’t need to be anything else.