The fight to be the fairest of them all has just become interesting. Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror is the first of two films to be released this year based on the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; and until very recently, to borrow an image from another fairy tale, it looked very much like the ugly sister.
Universal have lavished more than $100 million on their forthcoming Snow White and the Huntsman, a steely, Lord of the Rings-ish fantasy starring Twilight’s Kristen Stewart. Tarsem, whose last film was the operatically camp sword-and-sandals fantasy Immortals, has made a frothier, cheaper version. It boasts an odd cast led by Julia Roberts and the daughter of a famous drummer, and has been advertised with perhaps the most unappetising trailer of the year. “Snow White? Snow way!” wisecracks one of the dwarfs: a bite from a poisoned apple would go down easier than that gag.
Thankfully, Mirror Mirror is nothing like its trailer, and as far as I could tell, every last snow pun had been cut. Tarsem’s film is an exuberantly charming fairy story that owes as much to the gnarled folk tale illustrations of Arthur Rackham as the stagey, saturated lunacy of that half-loved, half-feared East German fantasy The Singing Ringing Tree. It’s a Grimm piece of work, but far from a grim one: without rehashing the seminal Disney animated version, it radiates gorgeousness and good humour with a near-nuclear intensity. Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller’s script sounds like it has been written by a 13-year-old girl, and for once that’s meant as a compliment. “Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Snow White – which must have been the most pretentious name her parents could have come up with,” narrates Julia Roberts’s delightfully aloof Wicked Queen, her famous lips audibly pursed like an irritated older sister’s.
Lily Collins, daughter of Genesis’s Phil, plays Snow White. She has an adorable, sensational, almost perfect face for cinema; think Audrey Hepburn with the eyebrows of Liam Gallagher. Her smile is the Platonic ideal of cheeky.
The Queen’s spendthrift ways have plunged the kingdom into debt, but the arrival of the fabulously wealthy Prince Andrew Alcott (Armie Hammer, revelling in the dreamboat role) gives her an idea. If she throws a ball in his honour and can convince him to propose, possibly with some help from the enchanted mirror in her dressing room, the two can live affluently ever after.
But at the ball, the Prince can’t tear himself away from Snow – perhaps it’s that smile, or those eyebrows, or the fact she’s wearing a swan-shaped gown, complete with wings and a beak. (Every outfit in Mirror Mirror is a masterpiece: Tarsem’s regular costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who died before Mirror Mirror was completed, has bowed out on an spectacular high.)
Furious, the Queen casts Snow White out into the wilderness; a monochrome silver birch forest straight out of Tarkovsky, where she is taken in by the seven dwarfs, a troupe of bandits-slash-acrobats who chase down stagecoaches on spring-loaded stilts. Together, they plot to save the Prince from his impending royal marriage, which puts a fresh, vaguely Hunger Games-esque spin on a familiar story. “No! You can’t change the ending,” complains Andrew, when he realises he is no longer the hero. “The old one works. It’s been focus-grouped.”
Mirror Mirror is not, thank goodness, something that could ever come out of a focus group. It’s the opposite of Tim Burton’s brash, chaotic, dispiritingly popular Alice In Wonderland: here, the artistry of the cast and crew leaps off the screen, not 3D computer graphics. This is a film in which bee-stung lips are achieved with real bees’ stings and puppy love can make a man behave like an actual puppy. Truly, it’s the stuff of fairy tales.