Once upon a time, fairy tales were used to transport children of all ages to kingdoms filled with beautiful princesses, mischievous children in need of lessons, valiant princes, scary witches and an assortment of colorful characters that they only could visualize in the confines of their imaginations. With the arrival of mass media (especially television and movies) our ideas of how fairy tale characters looked and acted became standardized. Children born during the last two decades probably think that most of their beloved characters weren’t created by the Grimm brothers or Charles Perrault, but that they in fact came from the minds and computers of the artists working for Disney or some other media conglomerate.
This commercialization of magic, led to an outburst of cynicism as seen in movies like the Shrek series, which makes a mission out of destroying the essence of fairy tales and imposing a system through which childhood becomes synonymous with flatulence jokes and intolerance. No wonder these kids turn into teenagers obsessed with celibate vampires on the verge of constant suicide, or become enthralled by mindless adventures in which destruction equals joy.
Upon first approaching Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror, it’s almost impossible not to believe it’ll be a rehash of the joyless spirit that’s plagued fairy tales recently, but after watching it, it’s absolutely refreshing to see that fairy tales can still be told without recurring to Tim Burton’s necrophiliac aesthetics, Dreamworks’ pop culture references, and more so, that they can still feel magical.
Mirror Mirror is set in a faraway land that still feels far away because we wonder for a second, if it’s generated by computers, miniatures, or matte paintings. In this lands lives a Queen (Julia Roberts) who came to rule the kingdom after the mysterious disappearance of her husband many years before. This beauty-obsessed queen has a stepdaughter called Snow White (Lily Collins) who spends her time batting her eyelashes and living in complete oblivion. That is until the day when she decides to visit the local village where she discovers the Queen taxes villagers violently, leaving them in utter poverty.
This Queen however, doesn’t only tax for vanity and whim, but because the forests near the kingdom are plagued with criminals, thieves and all sorts of thugs. Given that she needs to find a balance between providing for her own high-end goods and protecting her kingdom, she decides the easiest way out would be to marry a rich prince. Lucky for her, it comes in the shape of Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is robbed by a group of dwarfs and comes to the Queen’s castle for help.
At the same time, the Queen has ordered her most trusted henchman (Nathan Lane) to kill Snow White, after her magic mirror told her to (everyone knows how the story goes…). What becomes a real pleasure isn’t just watching how the screenwriters bent the fairy tale rules and created a structure that’s one part satire, two parts real old-fashioned bedtime story. You can almost see children gasping and asking out loud “and then what happened?” after more delirious elements are thrown into play. Needless to say so, there are valuable rules to be learned about beauty, evil and in this case, even taxes, but Mirror Mirror is more valuable because of how alive it feels.
Roberts, who now rarely graces the screen with her presence, is decadently divine. It’s not only a pleasure to listen to that laugh again, but it’s remarkable nowadays to see an actress having so much fun onscreen. We know that because it’s Julia, she won’t meet such a horrifying ending (she doesn’t) but her star power is such that we can’t help but root for her. It also helps that she gets to wear some of the most astonishing costumes Eiko Ishioka created before her sad death earlier in 2012. Every costume in the movie is a piece of art on its own, and the director and editor, allow the lush production design (by Tom Foden) and the costumes to have their chance in the spotlight.
The sum of Mirror Mirror’s parts may not always work in the ways it wanted to—there are interesting political and feminist undertones that never get fully played out—but it shamelessly brags about its beauty and overflows with love for storytelling (perhaps too much of it). The movie sometimes feels clumsy but it never ceases to be a joy to watch, hear and then tell others about.
The high definition transfer is absolutely ravishing, with the colors coming to live beautifully in 1080. You might even want to touch the screen, given how Ishioka’s textured costumes seem to achieve stereoscopic qualities. Because this is essentially a movie for children, extras consist of things they would enjoy more than grownups, including a dance tutorial, deleted scenes with gags, a “storybook” version of the movie that highlights Singh’s undeniable visual genius and an adorable short in which puppies comment on Armie Hammer’s acting abilities (its artistic worthiness is null probably, but you won’t see anything cuter this year). Rounding up the set is a run of the mill behind-the-scenes featurette which highlights Julia and Lily, but undeniably belongs to Ishioka who we see—in what sadly turned out to be her last movie work—looks frail and sick, but never doubting the power of fashion when it came to stories.