Who knew Tarsem Singh Dhandwar had a sense of humor? Well, apparently not me. So color me pleasantly surprised that the imagery-obsessed filmmaker behind such stony-faced pictures as “The Cell” and last fall’s “Immortals” has finally revealed a different side of himself with the playful fairy tale movie Mirror Mirror. A lighthearted interpretation of the Snow White tale, Tarsem’s latest never takes itself too seriously and enjoys many goofy gags throughout. The material itself certainly marks a departure for the director, as does the tone, but he doesn’t stop there. Usually known for his striking visuals and, well, not much else, Tarsem has taken a different approach with Mirror Mirror by putting the actors first and giving the whole cast room to shine. And while the effects team occasionally adds a sparkle to an actor’s toothed smile, the performers don’t really need the help. They light up the screen quite brightly all on their own.
The cast looks wonderful in retrospect, because they’re all so much fun to watch in this land of perched palaces and frozen forests. But the whole thing used to look like a gamble. Julia Roberts, who plays the Evil Queen (the one with the mirror fascination), hasn’t been particularly relevant or interesting in a while (I’d try to forget her in last summer’s “Larry Crowne” if the movie itself weren’t so pitifully forgettable). And yet she’s wonderful here, delivering her delightful dialogue with snappy aplomb and clearly relishing every nasty moment her character participates in. It’s a quick-witted portrayal of the mean, though comically accessible fairy tale villain. Perfect for family friendly viewing and just what Roberts needs to be entertaining again.
For the lead role, Tarsem has gone with Lily Collins, daughter of Phil and possessor of beguiling looks that make her perfectly suited for a live action take on the Snow White character. Collins arrives with very little acting experience, having only made a few screen appearances in movies such as “The Blind Side” and “Priest,” but she unveils a sweet and charming presence that suggests she has a natural charisma on screen. She succeeds in capturing Snow White’s demure attitude and also gives the character a refreshing update by tackling the princess’s newfound heroism with ease and confidence. Screenwriters Jason Keller and Melisa Wallack are ready to inject Snow with some welcome girl power and Collins keeps the character’s transformation smooth and believable.
Every Snow White tale needs a prince and male lead Armie Hammer is certainly handsome enough to look the part. Although considering he too has only a handful of acting credits under his belt and his last big screen appearance was the embarrassingly atrocious performance in recent disastrous biopic “J. Edgar,” the limitations of Hammer’s abilities were looking pretty constricting. But as it turns out, the guy is really funny when given the space to explore his comic chops. He hurls himself into all the slapstick silliness with whimsical energy and provides many of the movie’s funniest moments. It’s wonderful to see Hammer be so intentionally funny after trying on the unintentional variety in “J. Edgar.”
The no-longer-titular dwarves each make a strong contribution, too. All seven of them make an impression and then begin to develop their individual personalities. By the end, they’re all unique and well defined. The newly updated characters are played by Martin Klebba, Ronald Lee Clark, Sebastian Saraceno, Danny Woodburn, Joe Gnoffo, Mark Povinelli, and Jordan Prentice. With varying degrees of acting experience between them, they each suit their roles well and provide more humor both singularly and as a group.
This bunch of performers takes up most of the screen time, but even the rest of the cast fares well. Nathan Lane does a fine job as the Queen’s beleaguered lackey and Mare Winningham is tender as the baker who is also one of the only palace people to treat Snow with any kind of love or respect. It feels strange to single out the acting in a Tarsem movie as the most praiseworthy element, but by getting everyone in the cast to carefully commit to the tone and attitude of the picture and by giving them the time and attention to grow their characters, Tarsem succeeds more admirably than he has before.
But don’t let all of this talk about actors suggest that Tarsem’s trademark eye for fantastic visuals has somehow fallen by the wayside. Working with the late costume designer Eiko Ishioka for the fourth (and sadly final) time, Tarsem’s fairy tale world is awash with colorful fabrics and enchanting designs. Ishioka has outdone herself here, as usual, with a collection of elaborate dresses and outfits that are as opulent as one should expect from this particular matchup of director and material.
The production design, courtesy of Tom Foden, is also gorgeous. Foden has essentially three settings he needs to populate with his designs. There’s the ramshackle village taxed into disrepair by the Queen, the actual palace itself, and the mysterious, foreboding forest where much of the action and comedy takes place. Each of these areas is completely distinctive and yet they all seem to inhabit the same world. The sets do feel a little claustrophobic at times, since we’re always in the same few spots, but the designs are imaginative and attractive, expected staples in a fairy tale landscape.
To have come all this way without a major complaint is odd, especially for a Tarsem movie. And it’s not like Mirror Mirror is immune to negativity. The whole thing is quite slight, so it feels small and quick and inconsequential. The commentary on fairy tale narratives isn’t too insightful, though a few post-modern quips are fun. It all boils down to a silly celebration of princes and princesses, evil queens and resourceful dwarves. It doesn’t reinvent the fairy tale, but rather merely repositions it by juggling the iconography (those famous apples do make an appearance, though their cameo arrives later than usual) and transforming the conflict into a series of gags.
Despite the expected emphasis on visuals, Mirror Mirror still represents a promising and somewhat new direction for Tarsem. Extracting so many delightful performances from his cast is a new accomplishment for him and the sudden unveiling of his sense of humor is like a shot of cinematic caffeine. He even manages to make the love story work here, not because Collins and Hammer are overflowing with chemistry (they’re not dried out, either, though), but rather because they’re both so cute and innocent that their romantic connection feels nice and welcome and completely appropriate in fairy tale terms. So, once upon a time, Tarsem made a movie I really liked. And he did it with a sense of humor and a solid cast! It’s always nice to see a new side of a filmmaker I thought I had all figured out. Hopefully he has more surprises in store for us, but what lies ahead in his creative journey, well, only a magic mirror knows.