Hollywood's disconcerting trend of updated fairy tales hits its stride with Mirror Mirror, a cheeky retelling of "Snow White" that's both kid-friendly and surprisingly tasteful. Everything Grimm is new again, from last year's misfire Red Riding Hood to upcoming live-action revamps of "Hansel and Gretel," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Little Mermaid," and "Beauty and the Beast" (three times over). And June will see the release of none other than Snow White and the Huntsman, with Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron.
Tarsem Singh Dhandwar (Immortals, The Fall) wins the "Snow White" race, bringing his signature over-the-top production design to bear on a lunkheaded Prince (Armie Hammer), seven dwarfs (Danny Woodburn, Martin Klebba, Jordan Prentice, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, Sebastian Saraceno, and Ronald Lee Clark), an eighteen-year-old princess (Lily Collins) with snow-white features and a name to match, and a wicked Queen (Julia Roberts).
By toning down his excesses for a mass audience of largely children, the self-billed Tarsem hits his sweet spot, serving up lavish sets and costumes to create a fantasy world that doesn't make us want to scratch our eyeballs out. Yes, Mirror Mirror cultivates an unreal digital sheen, but more often than not it's quite handsome, and quirky in a Tim Burton-esque vein. (For just-so fairy-tale music chops, the film turns to Oscar-winning Alan Menken, known for his Disney fairy tale musicals.)
The script—credited to Marc Klein and Jason Keller—delivers a merry kid-level corrective to Disney, and while parents will have been there and done that, the verbal wit and Tarsem's visual invention make Mirror Mirror entirely tolerable. There's also the catty spectacle of aging star Roberts as a diva queen desperately holding off her inevitable fate as an old crone (one satirical sequence subjects the Queen—read Roberts—to an outrageous beauty regime: think literally bee-stung lips).
The film's snappy comic timing and general briskness impress, but the trade-off is perfunctory character "development." Snow White that starts off as much a bland, regressive zero as ever, moral but naïve, until she steps out of her literal ivory tower to discover a starving populace; a montage later, she's a formidable sword-fighting thief in company with the aforementioned dwarfs. Outfitted with springy accordion legs and played by a diverse group of hungry performers, the dwarfs give even the great Nathan Lane (here as the Queen's right-hand servant) a run for his funny.
By taking the tack of a live-action cartoon, Tarsem invites the audience to lighten up and enjoy the simplicity of ye old good-versus-evil storytelling. The gang of cliches is all here, but the tots won't mind. As the nouveau dwarfs say, "Never trust anyone over four feet."
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]