Friday, March 30, 2012

Mirror Mirror: A shattering disappointment

Mirror Mirror (2012) • View trailer
Two stars. Rating: PG, and needlessly, for fantasy violence and mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang

Ever have one of those days when everything goes wrong?

Tarsem Singh had an entire film’s worth.

Snow White (Lily Collins, right) finds herself quite unwelcome at a lavish ball
given by her evil step-mother (Julia Roberts), who warns the girl — with dire
threats of reprisal — to refrain from crashing any future parties. Alas, we'd have
no story if Snow obeyed this edict, and besides: The next gathering will be
thrown in honor of the handsome prince who just arrived at the castle.
Either that, or the woefully under-prepared director slept through the entire shooting schedule of Mirror Mirror. Rarely has so much gone wrong, in so many obvious ways.

In fairness, there’s plenty of blame to spread among numerous other folks, starting with Melisa Wallack and Jason Keller, and their impressively clumsy script: no more than a “greatest hits” effort to beg, borrow or steal bits, concepts and even atmosphere from far better predecessors.

This is less a screenplay, and more a cynical attempt at formulaic success: the plot-establishing prologue, in a stylized artistic montage, from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; a queen’s court comprised of decadent, garishly dressed aristocratic grotesques, from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland; the bickering, roughly garbed but technologically adroit dwarfs, from Time Bandits; the occasional exaggerated twinkle of eye or tooth, from Blake Edwards’ The Great Race; and mostly the quirky blend of fairy-tale clichés and contemporary snark, from The Princess Bride.

Heck, I’m pretty sure somebody even says “As you wish,” with the same sort of inflection.

Unfortunately, mimicking so much, from so many earlier sources, is no guarantee of doing it well ... and, indeed, Mirror Mirror merely makes one yearn for all those other, far better films.

In a word, it’s a mess.

A rather boring mess, at that.

Which is a shame, because it’s certainly well-cast. Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane bring the appropriate brio to their ham-on-wry performances as, respectively, the evil queen and her cowering sycophant; Lily Collins deftly matures from fragile, sheltered princess to resolute champion of the kingdom; Armie Hammer is properly virtuous and heroic as the dashing young prince; and the dwarfs — in this case dubbed Grub, Grimm, Wolf, Butcher, Napoleon, Half-Pint and Chuckles (because he never laughs) — are a squabbling hoot.

They give their all, but it’s all for nothing. Because nothing else works.

Tom Foden’s production design is lazy and unimaginative; it also looks cheap, particularly during the numerous forest scenes, dusted with obviously fake snow, that appear to have been filmed on sound stages. Perhaps this was intentional, to convey the old-style atmosphere of, say, the forest scenes in The Wizard of Oz ... but it still looks glaringly fake.

The film gets off to an ill-advised start with the aforementioned prologue, rendered in an odd, computer-generated effort at puppetry; it’s off-putting and even slightly disturbing (and not in a desirable way).

The narrative follows the usual highs and lows: This initially joyous land is ruled by a compassionate king and his beloved wife, who dies while giving birth to their daughter, Snow White. The grieving king eventually takes a second wife, a wicked schemer who soon dispatches her husband, in order to claim his throne. She taxes the kingdom into starvation and banishes young Snow to an upper tower.

Time passes; the kingdom suffers; Snow reaches her 18th birthday and finds some gumption; the queen finally does what she should have done years earlier, and orders the girl killed. The sniveling Brighton (Lane), unable to do the deed, frees the girl in the forest, where she encounters the seven little men who become her companions, teachers and protectors.

Meanwhile, the dashing Prince Alcott (Hammer) arrives just in time to wonder which side to take in this rather mild-mannered battle for the kingdom. Cue predictable arguments, sword fights and acts of subterfuge. One cute running gag: the manner in which Alcott keeps losing his clothes.

The story clumsily lurches from one set-piece to the next, with details and plot hiccups tossed in at random. It’s hard to know where to start complaining, but first place on the “most bewildering” list goes to the evil queen’s utterly bizarre “relationship” with her reflection in the magic mirror.

This image has its own personality, repeatedly argues with its “real” self, and yet does its mistress’ always malevolent bidding. Are we to imagine this image represents the remnants of the queen’s soul? If so, how did it get trapped in the mirror?

These visits with the mirror mostly exist to showcase the special-effects employed for the queen’s daft “journey” each time, taken when she steps through the looking-glass and winds up in an oddly enclosed realm that feels like the inside of a snow-globe. Or maybe the barren, fanciful afterlife of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones.

And the less said about the prince’s transformation into an actual lap-dog — when the queen mistakenly gives him not a love potion, but a puppy love potion — the better. Suddenly, a film that has consistently tried for (and usually failed to achieve) gentle whimsy, goes for stupid, tongue-slobbering slapstick. With predictably dismal results.

Even the queen’s signature “dire promise” fails to achieve the unsettling tone obviously intended by Wallack and Keller, despite Roberts’ best effort to sell the line: “Snow (referring to her step-daughter) will do what snow does best: Snow ... will fall.” This short speech, muttered by the queen to herself, simply doesn’t feel the slightest bit ominous. Quite the opposite: It sounds silly, particularly the second time around.

Singh, perhaps seeking career redemption after the très bizarre, mind-warping failures of The Cell and The Fall, didn’t achieve it here; he oversees this narrative nonsense with the detachment of somebody whose artistic involvement lies only with the next paycheck. The entire film plays like the first rehearsal of a small-town community theater production: poorly staged scenes, bad blocking and actors more concerned about hitting their marks, than with character development or persuasive line delivery.

Then again, most of Wallack and Keller’s lines shouldn’t have been delivered at all; they should have been refused and stamped “return to sender.”

Matters aren’t helped by one of the worst scores I’ve ever heard, which leaked from the pen of — and this is difficult to believe — multiple Oscar-winner Alan Menken. The underscore, more arbitrary than cohesive, never feels right for a given scene; taken as a whole, the music sounds as if it has been lifted from the source cues employed in half a dozen Disneyland rides. Yes, it’s that random.

One wonders if Menken deliberately set out to further sabotage an already ill-advised production. If so, he certainly succeeded.

Relativity Media, which produced this misfire, even miscalculated its promotional tagline: “One bad apple,” intended to reflect Roberts’ character, far better describes the film itself.

Finally — acknowledging the elephant in the room — this production clearly is a rush job intended to cash in on the current fairy tale craze. Yes, the Hollywood suits have been reading each other’s mail again; how else to explain three simultaneous projects that feature Snow White as a central character? ABC-TV’s Once Upon a Time continues to enchant fans each week, and — in early June — we’ll get the far grittier Snow White and the Huntsman, with pouty Kristen Stewart’s Snow waging actual war against Charlize Theron’s evil Queen Ravenna and her army of demons.

By then, Mirror Mirror will have become a long-forgotten spring hiccup, well deserving its swift trip to home-video purgatory. No happily ever after here...

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