I hate your hair.
—Queen Clementianna (Julia Roberts)
“I’m the most beautiful woman in the world,” announces Queen Clementianna (Julia Roberts), just before she adds, “This is my story, not hers.” That is, Mirror Mirror is the Snow White story from her evil stepmother’s perspective, a perspective that is by definition self-interested, limited, and revisionist.
This last aspect is the most intricate and occasionally perplexing of Mirror Mirror. For the film, written by Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller with an eye to tap the new girls’ market, recently underscored and exclamation-pointed by humungo profits of The Hunger Games, doesn’t just tell Snow’s story again. It changes that story, such that the queen is not just evil and calculating, and the princess is not just pure and beautiful and in a coma. Rather, the queen is neurotic and one-percenty and Snow (played by the lovely Lily Collins) is sweet and smart and a little actiony too.
The movie thus restages the women’s dynamic as a generational struggle over what it means to be entitled. This restaging doesn’t question that royals wear incredible outfits and inhabit implausible architecture, or that they pile on perfect makeup and massive hairdos and move through enchanted dimensions that don’t make particular physical sense. In part, their existence is a function of their existence inside a Tarsem Singh movie universe. But it also has to do with the class represented here, a class marketed to an aspiring population, kids who imagine adventures, who see rewards in sensual terms—cool costumes, cool stunts, maybe a kiss—the sorts of fantasies where tiaras can still serve as tie-in merchandise.
Snow is no Katniss standing up to, say, Effie Trinket, but quite self-consciously the king’s daughter. She has limited experience with family generally, as her mom died in childbirth and her father disappeared into a dark and snowy forest—but not before he bequeathed on the child his favorite dagger (“An interesting gift,” Clementianna observes, “but more on that later”). Left in her stepmother’s clutches, the girl grows up locked inside the castle, so she will remain not only unseen but ignorant. She doesn’t see the poverty of the townsfolk who are taxed heartlessly by the queen, and she misses the possibility of another life, where she might be willful or ambitious or distracted as well as pretty.
The queens efforts at sequestering her stepdaughter take on a kind of feverish urgency when she decides to compete for Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer): the queen needs his money, while he’s plainly meant for Snow. As her competition for her stepdaughter’s boyfriend begins to obsess her, the queen takes an extreme tack, sending her minion Brighton (Nathan Lane) on a mission to kill Snow (“Snow must do what Snow does best,” the queen tells herself and you, too, “Snow must fall”). Here, as Brighton can’t bring himself to murder the beautiful girl in an astounding white gown, Clementianna loses track of what happens, though she still talks frequently to herself, in the form of her awfully sinister magic mirror (which reflects back to her a very creepy CGIed de-aged version of herself, which is not to say that Roberts looks precisely “aged” in any instance).
What Clementianna misses, mostly, is the fact that Snow goes on to be rescued by the seven dwarves. They’re local thieves, having been banished from town by the queen’s decree against “ugly” people. Snow decrees they can’t steal from poor rabble people, and so rearranges their affairs so they steal from the queen and give back to the townsfolk, who barely register as background here. To win over the dwarves—including boastful Napoleon (Jordan Prentice), good-natured Chuckles (Ronald Lee Clark), and grumpy Butcher (Martin Klebba)—Snow cooks a nice lamb stew. In return, they train her to swordfight and run a few martial arts moves.
Snow embraces her new role, part Robin Hood, part Wendy Darling, and occasionally slapsticky romantic comedienne. Still, she’s sad to learn the announcement that the prince will be marrying her stepmother (this after he’s slipped a magic potion by the queen). She and her team decide to rescue Alcott, and so engage in a brief series of fights and chases and showdowns.
While it’s going through the motions of the plot that must bring Alcott and Snow together, the movie takes some easy shots at Clementianna, despised by her servants (for instance, the royal baker, Margaret [Mare Winningham]) and insistently mean to everyone. These bouts of bad behavior are outsized in a fairy taleish way: mad when she hears of rumors disparaging her rule, she decrees, “Anyone caught rumoring, gossiping or even thinking will be put to death!” Mad at Brighton, she turns him into a cockroach for a few days (an off-screen adventure that he recounts when he returns to human form, complaining of almost being stepped on and “A strange turn of events [wherein] a grasshopper took advantage of me.”
The queen’s foulest moment involves not her mirror or her army or her abuses of the peasants, but rather, her girliest inclinations. While the movie doesn’t encourage you to see how she came to think that perpetual youth and beauty are ends justifying any means—including murder—it does make sure you’re grossed out by her regimen. Preparing to seduce Alcott, she goes through a treatment that might have been appropriate in Brazil, or maybe The Help, where Margaret and a squad of maids melt bird poop and apply it to Clementianna’s face, then conjure still more goop to pour all over her body. Yucky doesn’t begin to describe it.