I had the pleasure of watching a very cute film this week, and I think it warrants your attention if you haven’t watched it. I’m talking about Mirror Mirror, last summer’s quirky iteration of Snow White from Tarsem Singh, of The Fall and Immortals fame. Tarsem is known for his dark adventure-fantasy romps and high stylization. Mirror Mirror is his first attempt at “family friendly” type fare, and it is overall, a cute film which I regret not viewing sooner. It is not without faults, but it is, overall a solid, genre-savvy film and rather unique in how the entire story was handled. You just have to view it the right way and in the right mindset and not go into it thinking it will be a certain way.
One would think going by the grand cinematic pieces he’s done before that Tarsem would either write or choose a Snow White script that would be as dark as the Grimm version of the tale. This is not the case. I remember seeing the pictures for the film when it was announced and of course Lily Collins, their chosen Snow White looked the traditional role 100%. All images from the movie proved to be a complete opposite of the trailers and media being put out for the second Snow White adaptation from 2012, Snow White & The Huntsman which presented itself as a grey-and brown gritty sword and sorcery style high-fantasy epic. Instead Tarsem and the now late Eiko Ishioka, his regular costume designer and a big contributor to his visual aesthetic, delivered with every reveal or image a brightly colored, whimsical, “fairytale-ish” aesthetic. And fairytalish in an illustrated book sense, not Disney’s current brand of Princess pink and purple. A comedy! It looked effervescent and fresh and kid friendly but still sophisticated.
However my heart somewhat sank when the trailers dropped, it looked….not as good as one imagined it would be. It was pure comedy and something looked, well off. It looked like it was trying too hard. What it really had was poor marketing. And as such while it did okay, it got mediocre reviews and was no match for Snow White & The Hunstman who not only dwarfed (no pun intended) Mirror Mirror in budget to begin with but it also boasted three well known A-list actors onboard (Charlize Theron as The Evil Queen, Kirsten Stewart as Snow White and Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman) as the main leads. Mirror Mirror had only a few huge stars with Julia Roberts notably as the vain Evil Queen. Meanwhile both Lily Collins and Armie Hammer as Snow White and The Prince respectively are both somewhat up and coming actors, Armie just landing leading man status with Disney’s Lone Ranger coming out this summer. As such I didn’t go see it, which is silly considering effervescent slapstick comedy is somewhat my own personal preference and shtick. It just looked too silly. Or juvenile. Or something. I really have no excuse.
It wasn’t until I went to a panel at the ICFA Conference in Orlando this past March that was comparing the two Snow White films from 2012 in terms of a feminist perspective. The verdict? The one that was more popular, the blockbuster Snow White & The Huntsman was decidedly less feminist and progressive and that Mirror Mirror was overall a more feminist and progressive take on the fairytale and thus a superior movie. I was impressed and I made a note to watch it when I could. Cue Friday Night brand boredom, and lo! Mirror Mirror.
First Mirror Mirror looks different than most films. It’s filmed differently. The sets are tiny, and are just that – sets. There is no on location type sets anywhere in the film. As such the sets and atmosphere are very simple, almost too simple, and have a very doll-house or again children’s illustration type feel. Everything is reduced into micro, a lot like actual fairytales. They actually reminded me of theater sets as well. As such it looks and is filmed very differently than say Snow White & The Huntsman or even Tarsem’s own The Fall and Immortals was. It feels like a play. Sorta. I assume this might have been what turned viewers off, it could be viewed as poorly shot and edited, and maybe it was, but it’s pretty clear due to Tarsem’s previous films this was a conscious stylistic choice and not due to a lack of talent. True it may not be as sophisticated as I’d personally like, but the movie is a real treat for the eyes due to the talents of Eiko Ishioka whose gowns and coats, basically all of the costumes are stunning.
Sick costumes right? Eiko you did good, hope you got a room full of any fabric you want in the afterlife cause you deserve it. The color blocking in this film is insane. The story too is a great version of the fairytale to show to young girls. Why? You’ll see!
The paper presentation I attended argued that while the Snow White in Snow White & The Huntsman was put in armor and meant to lead people into battle, it overall meant very little in terms of feminism. That Snow White was overall a token ‘Strong Female Character’ in which the writers and director thought just by giving her a sword and non-feminine clothing means progressive storytelling or is more feminist as it goes against the usual Snow White passivity and femininity (it doesn’t and that movie’s Snow White has little agency anyway, most things are done for her and it still follows the traditional apple-death and kiss from a man that revives her narrative).
In contrast the paper then argued that the macaron sweet Lily Collins version in Mirror Mirror was in fact, better than the one in Snow White & The Huntsman. And this is entirely true. This Snow White is extremely capable and a much more modern girl despite the traditional ‘princess’ trappings and demeanor. She is rather earnest, a bit naïve (she was shut away for ten years so yeah), and overtly feminine and well meaning, very Disney-esque and she overall stays that way; that’s who she is and that’s okay to be that way. That does not mean she doesn’t not have agency. She is very bright and opinionated and makes lots of choices on her own (she walks right out of the palace on her own accord despite not being allowed to after having quite enough of being a shut-in) and overall Tarsem gives her a lot of agency in such choices. She also slyly gives small white lies at certain times to help other people, particularly the dwarves. So she’s active, a lot more complex and is treated, well, like a person with a personality. True, she becomes the “action girl” having her eventually don pants and learns how to sword fight but she never expresses that one way of living or dress is better or worse than the other when it comes to femininity and by the end she is just as happy to be back in a ballgown as she was without it. Again they don’t denounce traditional femininity or vice versa just to show she is capable or “unstereotypical”. She is both. The movie also gives Snow White complete agency when it comes to true love’s kiss in a complete inversion of the traditional take, something Snow White & The Huntsman played straight and even added onto with love triangle ish.
Mirror Mirror also, and this is the most shocking part, completely subverts and omits something most people might assume goes hand in hand (and in hand oh god the puns) with any iteration of Snow White, and in doing so puts so much power in Snow White’s hands you can’t do anything but have your mouth drop open when it does come around and the movie denies it from occurring. It’s incredibly meta at times and completely genre-savvy. The Prince is also the only character objectified really as well. Thus the movie that marketed itself as being the “opposite” of the traditional tale by having Snow White act like Joan of Arc and had “realism” was actually the more traditional non-feminist telling fundamentally at the core whilst the movie visually and somewhat marketed as the kid-centric stylized traditional tale was actually anything but.
Admittedly the movie isn’t perfect, there are some plot holes or things I would have preferred be expanded upon or given a bit more weight, maybe some more sets and a different filming style. Tarsem and his writers on the film also need to get a bit more comfortable writing for younger audiences without trying too hard as they did with the dwarves, who were fine most of the time, but sometimes it started getting a bit too much like an early 90’s domestic slapstick comedy. A bit of restraint would have been nice, but otherwise really no complaints. You don’t have to lay it on quite so thick unless you go all out. But it does work when looking at the film overall in it’s complete cartooniness. One thing I would have liked would have been slightly better CGI, though the cartoony Looney Tunes style spell effects at times as well as teeth glints and other minor uses were very funny and could have been done even more. Other times CGI wasn’t so impressive.
Another point for the film being so good are the reasons for the Evil Queen’s behavior. She is rather frank about what she wants and what she wishes to maintain. Julia Roberts gives a very funny ham-fisted performance especially when alongside the stunningly dumb but rather funny Armie Hammer’s Prince. Robert’s Evil Queen is not so much evil as she is manipulative, jealous, greedy and vain and indeed her mirror actually serves as a conscience giving her advice to not do certain things and gives her frank opinions and warnings; the mirror bearing the image of her younger presumably pre-black magic self. The movie instead of just going by the Queen’s jealousy of youth as the moral, that youth triumphs over age, I feel it ultimately teaches that committing “black magic” or as I take it a metaphor for wishing harm or committing harm and hate against others out of spite, greed, jealousy, and personal vanity, or for any reason, will ultimately come back to bite you and render you as ugly as you act.
Together that message with a very strong Snow White, this film is a great, absolutely great film to show daughters and young girls and boys if one is concerned about the whole “Princess” phenomenon and not wanting to perpetuate some of the problematic storytelling of the past. It’s slapstick is adequate to keep kid’s attentions and is while overtly kid-oriented is smart enough and a bit naughty enough at times to keep adults interested if they must watch it with them. Did I mention Tarsem, being from India, sneaks in a Bollywood style musical number with some pretty good choreography and camerawork (perhaps some of the best in the whole film which sort of bums me out) during the credits too? Also Sean Bean! Shall I list more reasons to watch it?!
Have you seen and did you like Mirror Mirror? Is it the fairest of them all? I thought it was great, an okay and fizzy first try for sure from Tarsem in terms of catering to a desired audience and it avoided and dismantled many of the things that make Snow White such a problematic story at times. Let me hear your thoughts if you’ve seen the film! Did you like it?
Staff Writer/The Doctor