Mirror Mirror is undoubtedly the less-favored of the two Snow White tales hitting the box office this season. The camp apparent in its trailer was not well-received by many commentators, especially not alongside the grit and iron of Snow White and the Huntsman. Still, Mirror Mirror seemed adamant about taking on the more traditional aspects of the tale, while adding a healthy dose of humor to ease its passing.
Does it fail? Yes. But what’s impressive is how spectacularly it manages to do so... and how badly you might find yourself wanting to enjoy it in spite of all that.
(Spoilers for the whole film. Don’t worry, you’re not missing much.)
I fear that the only way to get my reactions across is to explain my way through it. Bear with me. It should be amusing, if nothing else:
It’s Snow White’s (Lily Collins) eighteenth birthday, and her step-mother (Julia Roberts) has been ruling for ten plus years since her father disappeared. She’s a woman for resplendent dress and lavish parties, and has kept Snow essentially confined to quarters all this time. When the princess ventures out to the throne room on her special day, her step-mother proceeds to tear her down by making her think that everything beautiful about her is annoying, then says “it’s important to know when you’ve been beaten, isn’t it?” as she slays some baron in a game of live chess.
Ooo, you say. Does this mean that this movie is going to deal with how women are often made to feel inferior based solely on their appearance? Are we going to see Snow White become more confident and learn that her beauty radiates internally? Nope.
The palace kitchen lady tells Snow White that she thinks the princess should go to the village and see exactly how the people have been suffering. So the girl leaves the palace and goes through the woods to get to town. There she meets a half-naked prince; he’s had his clothes stolen by bandit dwarfs.
Snow and the Prince (Armie Hammer) part ways. The village is awful and the princess is heartbroken. The Prince goes to the palace to ask for some clothes, and the Queen literally cannot concentrate in the presence of a well-toned manly chest. (This happens twice in the film.) Later, she goes to the mirror, but instead of asking who is fairest, she steps through it and emerges from water on the other side where a creepy cottage resides in the middle of a dark sea. It is one gorgeous visual effect.
I should pause a moment on the look and feel of the film. Mirror Mirror is directed by Tarsem Singh, who has directed three other films: The Cell, The Fall, and The Immortals. Needless to say, Singh is a spectacle director. He can create visuals that make you gasp and, indeed, Mirror Mirror has its moments in that regard. In fact, the film is so beautiful that you might find yourself wanting to like it. No one could really blame you for being hypnotized by rococo headboards, costumes that would baffle a mathematician, and gilded nailpolish (yes, Julia Roberts is definitely wearing Beyonce’s Minx nails). It also wins quite a few art direction points for using a non-European castle as the world’s centerpiece.
So the Queen’s dark cottage is full of mirrors. In the mirrors we see a ghostly-flawless version of the Queen — her soul, in all likelihood — and the Queen asks her advice. The reflection tells her she needs money and should marry the prince. The Queen throws a ball by taxing all the starving commoners, and goes through a beauty regime before the event. It involves masking her face with bird excrement, stinging her lips with bees, and letting slugs exfoliate her skin. I suppose the scene is trying to embody the “beauty is pain” motto, but all it makes you think is “beauty is gross.”
Snow White meets the prince at the ball, and it’s clear that they’re smitten. The Queen realizes Snow is making eyes at her man, and knows she has to have the girl killed. Everyone thinks that her majesty wants to murder the kid because she had a prettier dress at the party. (Are you kidding me?)
She sends her man Brighton (Nathan Lane) to do the deed, but he lets the princess go in the woods. Snow collapses in front of the dwarfs’ house after awesomely running smack into a gigantic tree branch. The dwarfs agree to keep her. She finds out that they stole the tax money that was going to the Queen, and she wants to return it to the people. The dwarves don’t care about the people. When the Queen named them “undesirables,” none of the villagers stood up for them and they had to abandon their lives.
Yes! The movie is going to tackle societal responsibility, and show the pain that ostracized people are forced to endure just because they’re different! Well... not exactly. Snow does return the tax money and tell the villagers that the dwarfs were responsible for stealing it back for them. So the villagers like them now, at least?
The one place where the movie is successful is in Snow White’s training. The dwarfs want to help her steal back from the Queen, but they have to teach her all their tricks to do so. In her montage-of-learning, the dwarf Grimm explains how they use people’s perceptions against them. Because Snow seems sweet, people will be caught off guard when she’s suddenly deadly. Great life advice for a heroine of any kind. Frankly, the dwarfs are the best part of the film in every sense, and deserved a lot more attention than they received.
Then there’s a scene where the prince thinks that Snow has gone crazy and stolen the tax money with the dwarfs, and tries to stop them. He swats her butt with a sword when she’s cornered. Three times. Yup, our heroine gets spanked. It’s John Wayne films all over again.
The Queen decides that she has to use magic, even though her reflection tells her there will be a price. She uses a potion on the prince to make him fall in love with her (it turns out to be a puppy love potion, but it makes no difference because he’s willing to marry her even if his primary concern is playing fetch). This leads to my biggest qualm with the film: why is the Queen concerned with beauty at all? If all she requires is a love potion to make a man fall for her, wouldn’t it be more interesting if beauty wasn’t really her thing? Or if she was completely confident in her own beauty and not obsessing over wrinkles? What if what makes you “fairest of them all” is wealth? What an interesting story that would have been! Instead we’re left with the same tired ageist, sexist garbage.
Snow and Co. kidnap the prince from the wedding and break his spell by true love’s kiss. But then the Queen unleashes the beast in the forest to kill Snow, and our heroine locks the prince and dwarfs in their house. (Wait, why does the front door need a key from the inside?) She tells the prince that she’s read a lot of books where the prince saves the princess, and it’s time to change all that. Nevermind the fact that Enchanted, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled have already tried it out with mixed results.
Calling attention to subverting a trope does not mean you have subverted it. And since the prince and dwarfs all break out to fight alongside Snow White, it definitely isn’t subverted. If their true message was that you should always fight surrounded by the people you love because they’ll never let you down, then they failed on that account too because that is never made clear.
But the beast won’t kill Snow White, and that’s when she notices the crescent moon necklace shining amidst his fur. Snow cuts the necklace off, the Queen’s magic is broken and she begins to shrivel, and the movie goes all Beauty and the Beast for a moment while the beast reverts back into the King:
It’s Sean Bean, of course. (Oh my god, what is going on here?)
The movie then wins the award for Worst Use of Sean Bean in the Fantasy Genre Ever. He marries his daughter and the prince; his speech is actually not about them (since they don’t have much of a relationship to speak of... still, a little of the old, “when they met, he was half-naked and she had just stepped out of the house for the first time in 12 years!” would not have gone amiss) and more about how they saved the kingdom, yay! The prince is in red and Snow is decked out in my high school colors, for some reason. They kiss and she goes to graciously accept gifts from the commoners. (Um, they’re poor. Shouldn’t the king be passing back a tax rebate instead?) An old woman in a cloak offers Snow White a humble gift... a shiny red apple. But Snow is wiser now, and stops just before taking a bite to look into the face of an old, familiar woman.
Snow White cuts a slice from the apple with some magical dagger she’s had hidden in her blue’n’orange wedding dress this whole time, says “age before beauty” with a nasty grin, and just as the defeated Queen is forced to take the slice from her, intones saccharinely, “It’s important to know when you’ve been beaten, isn’t it?” The ex-Queen eats the poison apple while her creepy cottage collapses into the sea and — WAIT, WHAT DID I JUST TYPE?
So it’s perfectly acceptable for our just-days-ago entirely innocent heroine to goad someone into committing suicide? It’s not just that I have a hard time believing that this character gets schadenfreude, but she’s also completely devoid of mercy? If she’s an amoral pirate, fine, but she’s just a kid. A shut-in kid who’s only recently come to realize that she has any internal strength. I’m not saying that women should never be vengeful, but having it come from a woman with some bitterness to spare would have made more sense. Maybe the kitchen lady, who has loved and looked after Snow White all this time? Now, that would have been an incredible way to end the movie. And the “age before beauty” taunt would have seemed less cruel; the way it comes off, it’s as though Snow is telling the Queen that “pretty people live their dreams and ugly, old people die miserably!”
The credits role, and the cast breaks out into a Bollywood musical number. (Sean Bean looks on semi-approvingly and doesn’t die shockingly at the end, which is wrong.) It’s probably the best part of the whole film.
So as you can see, Mirror Mirror is quite a ride. And despite how beautiful it is, and how many moments of insight it tries for, it ultimately fails to pull off anything that it promises. It’s a shame because with all it had to back it up, if the story had possessed any kind of stability, this could have been the version of Snow White to top for years to come.