After childhood, there seems to be something unsatisfying about fairy tales. Damsels in distress, unremittingly evil antagonists and chivalrous princes are all good and well, but wouldn’t it be nice if the damsel could save herself once in a while? Doesn’t the villain have any good qualities, let alone sympathy? And why is it assumed that spoiled, pampered princes are every girl’s ideal? Given the slew of fairy tale adaptations coming to cinemas this year, it would seem that quite a few of us want something more than archetypical characters and dubious messages about not only gender roles, but also about good and evil. Some movies and books have succeeded in reinventing the fairy tale. However, the greater part of retellings seem to have nothing new to say: The characters are as static and one-dimensional as ever, and the troubling messages only come across more strongly than before. And despite all the hype, Mirror Mirror, directed by Tarsem Singh, is unfortunately of the latter category.
The movie opens with the queen (Julia Roberts) narrating Snow White’s pitiful saga: after her mother dies, the king takes a new wife, who wrestles the throne from the princess and declares it to be her own. At the same time, the queen declares this story to be her own, which sets expectations quite high: Who doesn’t love an in-depth study of an antagonist’s psychology? Suffice it to say that these expectations are completely deflated almost immediately. All sympathies lie with the soft-spoken and spineless Snow White (Lily Collins), who has not been allowed to leave the castle since her father passed away. One cannot help but suspect that it is not the evil queen who stands in her way, but rather Snow White’s lack of conviction; once one of the stock servant characters convinces her to leave the castle and see the plight of the people for herself, she goes merrily on her way without so much as a “Halt!” from the ridiculously-dressed guards. While walking through the forest, she meets the handsome and conveniently naked Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer), who has just been robbed by seven “giant dwarves.” Their attraction towards each other is instantaneous, albeit contrived, but it is thwarted by the queen’s plan to marry the boy. Snow White is exiled from the palace so that the queen can have her way with Alcott. Hilarious high-jinks ensue.
If only that were the case! The dialogue is wooden and painfully unfunny: At one point, two of the guards pinky-swear to one another that they will not tell the queen about Snow White’s outing to the village. The dwarves’ salivating over Snow White is irritating and rather disturbing, considering she is an unarmed woman in the midst of seven well-muscled, albeit small, men. The queen’s laborious efforts to retain her youthful glow are too close to the truth to really be laughable; when she slathers bird droppings on her face and tells herself to go to her happy place, one can easily imagine Julia Roberts enduring a similar procedure outside the context of the movie. Not to say that there wasn’t some laughter in the theater, but after the dwarves asked Snow White to be their girlfriend for the umpteenth time, the joke got rather worn out.
One could say that the clichés and silliness were self-aware and therefore slightly more palatable. But no amount of self-awareness could make up for the shoddy character development and disturbing ending. Lily Collins looks like Snow White, but she also acts like Snow White. She never raises her voice above a whisper and her idea of rebellion is crashing a masked ball which her stepmother has expressly forbid her to attend. Her sympathies with the starving peasants make her somewhat more likable, but it is never indicated that she plans to do anything about it other than wring her hands and shed a few tears. Like many writers and directors before him, Singh is under the mistaken impression that putting a sword in a woman’s hand suddenly makes her stronger. While the montage in which Snow White learns how to fight shows her determination, it also makes one wonder: Why doesn’t she use this strong will of hers to overthrow her stepmother, help her people or at least claim her prince? Why is she content to simply stay in the woods? Her romance with the prince is one of the shallowest love stories ever depicted: After a handful of meetings in which they ogle each other, they decide they are in love and of course the movie ends with a lavish wedding. Perhaps they do deserve each other; Prince Alcott has about as much personality as a rock, though he is considerably better looking.
In the end, Mirror Mirror makes no attempt to subvert or even trouble the gender stereotypes and myriad other issues raised in the original fairy tale. Yes, the girl learns how to wield a sword, but does she really learn how to speak her mind and fend for herself? Yes, the boy gets the girl, but what does it mean if their relationship is based purely on physical qualities? Mirror Mirror is that deceptive, pretty apple that disappoints from the very first bite.