Apr 2 2012 6:00pm

Excuse This Rant About Mirror Mirror

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.

Emily Asher-Perrin is going to name her first restaurant “Snow and Co.” You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

John R. Ellis
1. John R. Ellis
"He marries his daughter and the prince"

Wow. This is racier than I thought it would be!

...*...oh, wait. Sorry. Misunderstood!
John R. Ellis
2. Kyo
You mean Sean Bean doesn't die? Surely that is a default fail...suffice to say I will not be seeing this movie. I may go see Snow White and the Hunstman to see if Kirsten Stweart manages some emotion or if it's just Bella Swan in a different set of clothes. Awesome review though, really made me laugh ^_^
John R. Ellis
3. JCHicks
Ah, man, I was waiting for Sean Bean to fall down some stairs or off a battlement or something. I have no interest in seeing this movie, but I love the rant. Here's hoping Snow White and the Huntsman is better ... because the trailer looks awesome.
Anthony Pero
4. anthonypero
Maybe Sean Bean has a death scene in the special features.
Scientist, Father
5. Silvertip
OK, EAP, level 2 question:

I have a nine year old daughter who will no doubt very soon be asking to see this. I am fully willing to suffer through unappealing-to-adults stuff if it entertains my kids for a couple of hours. Does it work as a kids movie at least? Or not even succeed at that level?

Anthony Pero
6. anthonypero
There are no kids in it and the Queen skewers living chess peices.
John R. Ellis
7. Patrick Michael
This review confirmed everything I feared about this movie. The visuals looked interesting but the story appeared flimsy. Thank you for saving me $20 on a very uninspired re-telling of a fairy tale.
John R. Ellis
8. Mella
Well, I did say before that Snow White and the Huntsman would be the better of the two. They rushed this one, however.
Emily Asher-Perrin
9. EmilyAP
@1 - They're a very liberal sort of kingdom. ;)

@5 - Level 2 question: most of the kids at my showing were giggling through the film, so it seems to work as a children's film overall. It did seem to be a bit long and over-complicated for a few of the kids, who started talking around the hour mark.
Lauren W
10. laurene135
I didnt expect much, but it's sad to see the film was about as bad as I thought it might be. Part of me was hoping I was just being critical.
The ending with the apple rubs me the wrong way too. As you stated, it would have been stronger for another to give the apple back to the queen, but having Snow do it sends a horrible message. Basically one of "if you are in power it doesnt matter what you do." One would hope that Snow learned from her stepmother's mistakes and chose to rise above it in her own actions instead of lying with the dogs.
Scientist, Father
11. Silvertip
@EAP, thanks!

And please, whatever you do, nobody tell Leigh Butler about the spanking thing ...

12. Freelancer
My daughter arrived at the same relative conclusion concerning the two Snow White films, but through a completely different avenue. In her words, "Charlize beats Julia with a stick."
John R. Ellis
13. patuxxa
...Sean Bean DOESN'T die at the end? I knew from the first trailer there was something horribly, horribly wrong with this movie.
John R. Ellis
15. Robert Slater
Apparently there's a political subtext most people miss where the movie is mythologizing the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
Stephanie Treanor
16. Streanor
Favorite line:
"The movie then wins the award for Worst Use of Sean Bean in the Fantasy Genre Ever."
Evan Langlinais
17. Skwid
I just came here to post what Robert Slater did at 16. Anyone have anything to add to that idea?
Emily Asher-Perrin
18. EmilyAP
@15 and 17: I don't know much about that particular page of Indian history apart from basic historical information, but I can say that if that's the subtext Singh was going for, it didn't play very well to me. Operation Blue Star, which was the event that most site as the reason for Indira Gandhi's assassination, is not mirrored clearly in the events of the film (unless we're equating Snow White with Sikhs? Sort of an awkward tie to make, but an interesting thought). Now, I'm sure an Indian viewer with some closeness to the subject matter might feel different in this regard. I'd be very interested to hear their opinion.

It seems very likely that the subtext is all there in visual cues, considering the fact that Singh didn't write the script himself. That in and of itself would make embedding the allegory a real problem: if something doesn't exist on the scripting level, you're going to have a harder time implementing it.

If the film was aiming for a more general subtext, that's certainly a fascinating lens to view it through. But it doesn't change the other ways in which Mirror Mirror fails to pull its premise off. If the allegory had been more evident, though, wow. That film I would have loved to see.
John R. Ellis
19. Evie
"Calling attention to subverting a trope does not mean you have subverted it." THANK YOU, Emily. I couldn't quite put my finger on why I wanted to throw up every time I saw the trailer for this movie, but you've expressed it beautifully.
John R. Ellis
20. JoeH42
"In the mirrors we see a ghostly-flawless version of the Queen"
Does it have a smaller mouth??
John R. Ellis
21. BNelson
Thank you for posting the blow by blow! I will deffinately NOT take my kids to see this one. The trailers of a prince acting like a dog warned me, and this finalized my decision. What a shame. A live-action princess story would have been nice.
John R. Ellis
22. J'
You covered every single thing I found wrong with this movie! Including the failure to give more screen time to the only characters with any pizzazz - the dwarves. It felt like a children's movie with the odd "adult" joke thrown in to mollify parents.

Epic fail in every aspect (except costumes - lavishly perfect).
Chelsea Rash
23. Crashwriter
Eek - this review confirmed all my worst fears. I thought that after the trailer, my opinion couldn't sink any lower, but misusing Sean Bean? Heresy! Sounds like it's headed for Razzie territory.
John R. Ellis
24. Tyler Cowen NOT
Regarding 15,17,18. I saw the movie to try to figure out Tyler Cowen's theory on the Indira Ghandi metaphor. I think Snow White was Indira Ghandi as a young woman. Indira was Nehru's daughter, and after his death she was pushed away but returned to power to restore the "Nehru dynasty". Not a great fit in my opinion, but it made more sense than Indira as the wicked queen.
John R. Ellis
25. fredzilla
This movie was surprisingly bad. The all star lineup couldn't give any life to this movie even with a battery and jumper cables. Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings/Sharpes series from Masterpiece Theater) looked absolutely pained as the cast broke into the Bollywood dance number. What was that all about?? Didn't know how to end the movie, I guess. Phooey!!!!
John R. Ellis
26. Film goer
Looks like she should have offered you the poison apple. Get a life.
John R. Ellis
27. emy
any way I like it
John R. Ellis
28. Barry H
Pretty deep analysis for a kids film. It's like a quantum physicist reviewing teletubbies, you would think to yourself why bother? It's for kids and most would say that they enjoyed the movie, my 5 yr old daughter did and so did I as it happens (29). It's called demographics, you don't see OAP's reviewing episodes of Hollyoaks...

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