All's Fair Among the Fairest
Snow White is a tale that, frankly, doesn't seem to lend itself to endless reinterpretation. It's a story about a girl known for her beauty, who is the subject of a murder attempt by her step-mother, is saved by the man sent to kill her (because she's pretty), ends up living with some dwarves (who take her in because she's pretty), has another attempt on her (beautiful) life by her step-mother, falls into a coma, and then wakes up thank to a kiss from a price (who loves her because she's pretty). The key factors of her story are that (a) she's pretty and (b) she is not the agent in her own story. Shit happens to her not because of her.
Most versions of Snow White that we know (Disney's version, plus Snow White: A Tale of Terror, and Snow White and the Huntsman) stick to that basic setup. Snow herself (or whatever name they give her), is a pretty girl, if a tad vapid and naive, who's only real issue is her step-mother. That step-mother, generally, is a far more interesting character as she gets to be vain and greedy and villainous. Snow, however, has to remain sweet and nice. It's hard to make a solid character out of that and most films don't try. Mirror Mirror tried, though.
Released in 2012, the same year as Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror tried to do something different from that other fairy tale picture. Where Huntsman was a big, sloggy, fantasy epic that wasted a lot of time on Snow's protector before finally, thankfully, giving Snow something to do, Mirror Mirror takes a very different tack with the film. It's a comedy or errors, a slapstick action film, and a grand adventure for Snow White herself. It's light, it's lithe, and its very, very assured. Sadly, it also made practically no money at the Box Office, getting completely drowned out by Snow White and the Huntsman and the celebrity rag scandals surrounding it. One of these films deserved to win at the Box Office, and it wasn't the movie that actually won.
The story, ore or less, follows the basic setup you know. Snow White (plays as an adult by Lily Collins) is born to a wise and noble king and his wife. Sadly the wife dies in childbirth, leaving the babe in the hands of her doting father. He eventually meets a beautiful woman, Clementianna (Julia Roberts), and then soon after the King disappears in the dark forest, never to be seen again. The step-mother takes over as queen, despite Snow White being groomed as the next ruler of the land, and very quick Clementianna changes everything. The land gets darker, the people get poorer, and Snow White is shut up in her room, treated like some kind of cast-aside vagrant. And as it happens, the step-mother is also a sorceress (of a sort) and her magic starts to fade. Why? Because her power comes from being the fairest. Snow White, though, is beautiful, and will soon take the title of the fairest.
So the queen decides to have Snow offed, taken out into the woods by the queen's own head servant, Brighton (Nathan Lane), with orders to bring back only the girl's heart. Brighton isn't able to kill her, though, sending Snow to run off into the woods. There she meets a group of dwarves -- Danny Woodburn as Will Grimm, Martin Klebba as Butcher, Sebastian Saraceno as Wolf, Jordan Prentice as Napoleon, Mark Povinelli as Half Pint, Joe Gnoffo as Grub, Ronald Lee Clark as Chuckles -- who all operate as bandits in the dark forest. They quickly take a shine to the girl and she trains with them to be a bandit, like them. Quickly they start causing a lot of trouble for the queen, and her favored prince, Andrew Alcott (Armie Hammer), and has to be dealt with. Can the bandit dwarves, with maybe a little help from that one Prince, stop the evil queen and free the land from her dark magic?
As so happens with many Snow White productions, Mirror Mirror is in many ways more about the step-mother than Snow herself. That is not to say that Snow White lacks a good story -- in fact, I'd peg this as the best protagonist tale for Snow White we've seen yet -- but that the step-mother is so delicious, scenery-chewingly good. Julia Roberts is perfectly cast her, enjoying every second of the time she gets to play the vain and evil Clementianna, and it's great. It's impressive because the role builds on the personal Roberts has played so many time, that of the romantic, comedic lead, but then turns it to use those very qualities against Clementianna The Julia Roberts laugh, that iconic sound, comes out and Mirror Mirror makes it sinister. This was a part Roberts was born to play.
The film does give the evil queen plenty to do, though. She's not just sending people off to kill her step-daughter for her. She's also bleeding the kingdom's wealth, throwing parties, punishing the poor, and courting the prince (who, in fairness, only has eyes for Snow White). Throwing in finances and politics into the mix makes the evil queen into, well, a royal that actually has to do things. This leads to her overtaxing her people, causing further strife, and that in turn spells doom for her political career. The film, as it turns out, has a lot it does to flesh out both sides of the story to make all parties interesting.
In that regard, having Snow White team up with bandit dwarves to acting as a kind of Robin Hood for her people is an inspired choice as well. This not only lets her see how her people are living, proving she cares for her citizens, but it then lets her take an active role in her story. She gets to help her people, and fight back against the evil queen, and not just let the men around her do all her work for her. This is a vital change to actually make Snow White the true protagonist of her own tale.
I actually really liked all the various characters in this film. The dwarves (played by actual dwarves and not just CGI'd tall people) are richly developed with their own personalities (more so than Disney was able to manage). They're given goofy stunts (with acrobatic stilts) but, in the weird context of the film's production values, it works. I liked these characters and what they brought to the story. Armie Hammer's Prince Andrew Alcott is written as a charismatic buffoon, a fop who can sword fight but, more often than not, acts as the comedic relief around Snow and the Queen. Hammer has a blast in this role and it's one of his better performances. And, of course, Nathan Lane is great as only Nathan Lane can be. Nathan Lane should be in everything.
Since I mentioned it above, the film's sets and costumes are interesting. The film goes in hard on the storybook vibe, so instead of filming at real locations, everything in the movie is done on sound stages. This gives it a different feel from Snow White and the Huntsman, almost to the point where, had the characters all been animated (say by stop-motion maquettes), this would have felt like a Rankin-Bass film. That's a good thing as the cool production values, along side the rich (and silly) costuming, adds to the heightened sense of reality, and that helps the comedic nature of the film even more.
This is a farce, through and through, and the film knows it. It's an assured production that goes hard on the fantasy and the comedy, making for the most enjoyable version of Snow White I've seen yet. Mirror Mirror is a solid film that deserved better at the Box Office. It died then but, just maybe, it can live on as a cult classic forever after.