Mirror Mirror - Julia Roberts and Lily Collins
The jealous Evil Queen (Julia Roberts) wants to be rid of sweetly innocent stepdaughter Snow White (Lily Collins) © 2012 Relativity Media

Director Tarsem Singh is known for the lushly dreamlike production design of his previous films The Cell, The Fall and Immortals. Mirror Mirror may not be the fairest of them all (that honor would go to his masterpiece The Fall), but its beautiful costumes and artfully artificial sets are almost attractive enough to make up for a corny, tongue-in-cheek screenplay. This retooled fairy tale is a joy to behold, if not to be heard.

Lily Collins, last seen in 2011’s teens-on-the-run Abduction with Taylor Lautner, is picturebook pretty as Snow White. Her dramatic dark eyebrows, porcelain skin and pixie face are Audrey Hepburn adorable. She also has Hepburn’s ability to appear delicately feminine one minute and tomboyish the next.

That’s fortunate, because this Snow has to do more than cook and clean for seven diminutive housemates. This version’s renamed dwarfs — Napoleon, Half-Pint, Grub, Grimm, Wolf, Butcher and Chuckles — are stilt-wearing stick-up artists (“beats workin’ down a mine,” one of them notes). Snow makes those larcenous little people see the wisdom of returning their ill-gotten gains to over-taxed townfolk, and becomes skillful enough with a blade to hold her own in a swordfight.

Mirror Mirror - Armie Hammer with Lily Collins
Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) is dashing with Snow White (Lily Collins) © 2012 Relativity Media

Before she shacks up with those seven shifty shrimps, Snow is a virtual hostage in the fantasy-gorgeous castle where she has lived since her father the king disappeared. Julia Roberts plays her evil stepmother with the snidely self-involved sarcasm of Glee‘s Sue Sylvester. Her relationship with the story’s magic mirror is considerably more involved than in the Disney version. She’s able to walk through its glass to emerge in a watery otherworld, where she converses with a soothingly deadpan version of herself.

Hoping to marry a rich prince who can restore her kingdom’s misspent wealth, the queen undergoes a beauty regimen called “the treatment” that includes bird droppings, bee stings, maggots, wasps, snails, a snake and a scorpion. This simultaneously grotesque and absurd scene is reminiscent of one in Terry Gilliam’s bizarre Brazil. Likewise, Snow White’s thieving dwarfs seem remarkably similar to the criminally minded midgets in Gilliam’s Time Bandits. What Mirror Mirror lacks, however, is Gilliam’s cleverness and sometimes menacing wit.

When the queen discovers that handsome Prince Alcott (The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer) only has eyes for just-turned-18 Snow, she tasks bunglingly obsequious servant Brighton (Nathan Lane) with killing the guileless innocent. Brighton can’t go through with it, Snow flees through the forest and the movie morphs into an odd Robin Hood reboot.

Mirror Mirror and 1987’s The Princess Bride share an affectionate sense of irony about their similarly storybook subject matter. But the Mirror Mirror screenplay (by Marc Klein and Jason Keller, from a story by Melisa Wallack) never manages the tricky feat of making broad campiness seem genuinely funny. A lot of the dialog here is as flat as sitcom chat, or as obvious as an unearthed Carol Burnett skit. A scene in which Prince Alcott goes doggy-style after drinking a “puppy love” potion may be the worst offender.

The movie opens with a stunningly animated sequence about what happened to the king 10 years earlier, using realistic but wonderfully exotic doll-like figures. But a later scene in which Snow and the dwarfs fight giant CGI marionettes looks so out of place it should have been cut.

Mirror Mirror is the first of two Snow White films that will be released this spring, but June’s Snow White and the Huntsman apparently will attempt to take the material seriously.

Collins is so cute and the movie’s costumes (by Eiko Ishioka) are so dazzling that even a cliché multiple-outfits montage isn’t objectionable. Script-wise, though, it’s too bad this Snow is so adrift.

[Rating: 2.5 stars]

Mirror Mirror is released in US and Canada on March 30, 2012. Australia release is March 29, 2012 and UK release is April 2, 2012.

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.