Not So Grimm Tale

A bit over a year ago, in a moment of serendipitous timing or bankrupt creativity, three studios announced plans to produce movies based on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”  Of course, there is already the classic Disney animated movie, the one that started it all for Uncle Walt, but when has doing it well the first time ever stopped Hollywood.  (see also Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate, Arthur, etc.)

One of the productions disappeared into development Hell, but two have actually been filmed and are being released within months of each other.  That also has happened before.  In 1997 the similarly-themed Dante’s Peak and Volcano came out, the former in February, the later in April.  Volcano did have one of the best tag lines ever for its poster: The Coast is Toast.

The trailer for Snow White and the Huntsman, staring Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, and Kristen Stewart (who really needs to get some color in her cheeks in at least one movie), shows its adaptation to be a straight-forward sword and sorcery epic with enough special effects to sink the Titanic.  (It won’t be as successful as that movie – at this point, the studio execs are simply hoping it doesn’t play like John Carter Part 2.)

I wasn’t expecting much from the first “Snow White” out of the gate, Mirror Mirror.  With the bar set low, I entered the theater – and was pleasantly surprised.  The screenwriters (Jason Keller and Melissa Wallack) have taken the original Brothers Grimm fairy tale and have given it a twist and a good shot of wry.

The tone is set from the very beginning, an animated opening sequence with a wonderfully snarky voice-over.  The narrator is none other than the evil Queen (Julia Roberts), who tells how Snow White’s father, the King, had married her after Snow’s mother died, and then was lost in the deep forest that surrounds the kingdom.

Snow (Lily Collins, The Blind Side) grows up essentially under house arrest, with only Baker Margaret (Mare Winningham) and the other servants as her friends.  The Queen has squandered the kingdom’s riches with her fancy lifestyle and parties, and her constant levying of taxes is taking what little the peasants in the kingdom have left.  Margaret tells Snow she needs to see what has happened, so Snow walks past the palace guards (who seem to have been lifted out of a Monty Python sketch) and heads for the village on the other side of a frozen lake.

At the same time, Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer, The Social Network) is traveling through the forest when he’s set upon by seven thieves.  At first he believes they’re giants, but instead they’re dwarfs on pneumatic stilts.  Alcott laughs at them, thinking they’re no threat.  He changes his mind when they relieve him and his page of their horses, their money, and most of their clothes, and leave them hanging upside-down from a branch.  That’s where Snow finds them.  After she frees them, she continues to the village while Alcott heads for the castle.  When the Queen finds out he’s rich, she makes plans to woo Alcott.  Snow discovers things are as bad as Margaret has said.  She returns to the castle in time for a ball the Queen is having for Alcott, and interferes with the Queen’s plans by having Alcott fall for her.  The Queen orders her servant Brighton (Nathan Lane) to take Snow into the woods and kill her, but he’s scared off by a beast that inhabits the forest before he can complete the assignment.  Instead Snow makes the acquaintance of the seven dwarfs and plots to defeat the Queen.

The movie was directed by Tarsem Singh, who had started his career doing music videos before directing The Cell in 2000.  While that movie had a weak plot, it was somewhat counterbalanced by stunning visuals and non-CGI effects.  Last year Tarsem made the almost-all CGI Immortals.  With Mirror Mirror, Tarsem displays a comedic streak that was missing (at least intentionally) from his previous movies.  The movie is closer to Bollywood than Hollywood.

The production design, including costumes that look like they were created by the late Alexander McQueen, fits beautifully with Tarsem’s style.  For the mirror sequences, Roberts walks directly into the mirror, which takes her to a private world.  Different from the classic Disney movie, here she talks to her own reflection, but it is a truth-teller version of herself (which makes for an interesting psychological twist to the premise).

Roberts seems to be having more fun than she has had on the screen in a long time.  The Snow White that Lily Collins embodies fits the physical requirements – beautiful, black hair (“It’s actually raven,” the Queen points out) and pure, white skin (“She’s never seen the sun, so of course she has good skin.”) – but she isn’t the damsel-in-distress who must be rescued by the handsome Prince.  She takes control of her fate (and in one fun scene gets to best Alcott in a sword fight, with her intelligence overcoming his physical strength).  Armie Hammer effectively plays the straight man for both Roberts and Collins.

In this incarnation, the dwarves are not cute.  They’re a shorter version of Robin Hood’s merry men, though they’d prefer to rob from the rich and keep it all themselves.  The film manages to differentiate them without the names used in the Disney version.  Instead you have Half-Pint (Mark Povinelli), Napoleon (Jordan Prentice), Grub (Joe Gnoffo), Grimm (Danny Woodburn), Wolf (Sebastian Saraceno), Butcher (Martin Klebba) and Chuckles (Ronald Lee Clark).  You would not want to run into them in a dark forest.

It’s not a great movie.  They’ve aimed the humor (including a rather gross beauty treatment sequence) for the tween set, and there’s enough silliness that kids would enjoy this movie likely more than adults.  There are structural weaknesses with the story.  The kingdom is oddly confined, and there’s a cameo by Sean Bean that’s completely wasted (he may wish he had stayed in Westeros).

But it’s enough over the top to be fun, right up to the full-blown Bollywood production number led by Lily Collins at the end of the movie.  As the daughter of rocker Phil Collins, she has the chops to carry it off.  If you’re looking for a diverting two hours, you could do worse than Mirror Mirror.

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