Long Take: Mirror Mirror, Off the Wall

Viewed August 18 & 19, 2012

Two “subversive” re-hashings of the fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in theaters this year, Mirror Mirror (Tarsem Singh Dhandwar) in late March and Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders) in early June, the studios’ schedules leaving barely two months between their releases. In the battle for my interest, the latter prevailed. At the time, I found its darker vision more intriguing, the welcome prospect of meeting an active—even kick-ass—heroine more certain, despite dull-as-wood Kristen Stewart’s playing the part. Mirror Mirror, on the other hand, appeared to be a campy, self-conscious comedy that tries-too-hard. Having now seen it on DVD, I can say that looks aren’t deceiving in this case.

At first glance, it’s easy to identify the colorful, other-worldly mise-en-scène of Mirror Mirror as exactly what we have come to expect from “visionary director” Tarsem (as he is usually credited), whose earlier works include The Cell (2000), The Fall (2006), and the extremely loose adaptation of the Theseus-starring Greek myth Immortals (2011). On closer inspection, however, Tarsem’s characteristic style-over-substance M.O. impresses the observation that Mirror Mirror looks as if Tim Burton had made it as a sort of companion piece to the 2010 revisionist megahit Alice in Wonderland, as both films attempt to give their young heroines more feminist agency while on their journeys toward adult womanhood. There’s just one caveat: the new Snow White adaptation, unlike any Tim Burton film, doesn’t take itself seriously. It is a pastiche of styles and attitudes, mixing a prologue featuring porcelain-like puppets with an epilogue that consists of a Bollywood musical dance number. It’s overwhelmingly cynical but hopelessly romantic at the same time. Crucially, too, the film’s less-than-spectacular special effects are no match for its opulent, golden production and costume design (the latter of which comprises legendary designer Eiko Ishioka’s last on-screen effort).

Mirror Mirror turns the all-too-familiar fairytale upside down—especially its story structure. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t subvert the form and instead reaffirms the romantic ideal, even after doing so much to tear it down. If I haven’t already spoiled it for you, I’m definitely going to do so now.

Julia Roberts, as The Queen and evil stepmother of Snow White (a likeable if thickly browed Lily Collins), narrates the tale from her perspective, asserting that it is her story. Most likely responsible for the King’s presumed death when Snow was a little girl, the beauty-obsessed Queen tyrannically reigns over the kingdom in his absence, for more than a decade by the time the film story begins. Cash-strapped and insecure, she keeps a now teenaged Snow White locked up in her room, demands exorbitant taxes from the destitute commoners to pay for gala events and chemical peels, and desires a new rich husband to ensure her lavish spending habits continue unabated. On her eighteenth birthday, Snow White finally leaves the castle to see what the Queen’s rule has subjected her people to, and en route to town, she encounters the arrogant but handsome Prince Alcott of Valencia (Armie Hammer) and his valet Renbock (Robert Emms). Strung upside down on the branch of a tree in the frosty forest, the men are so ashamed to be the victims of a mugging by a band of dwarfs on stilts that Alcott insists they are commoners. Sparks fly after she cuts them free, and they go their separate ways.

Snow White and Prince Alcott meet again later that night—this time as themselves—at the ball that the Queen throws in his honor, an over-the-top attempt to woo him since he comes from a country with lucrative industry and trade. Jealous of the attention he bestows upon her stepdaughter, the Queen demands that her “executive bootlicker” Brighton (Nathan Lane) abandon the girl in the woods so that the mythic but very real beast gobbles her up. Brighton goes so far as to bring Snow White to the forest, but he sets her free. She eventually happens upon the hideout of the seven dwarf bandits and convinces them to let her stay. Her heretofore untainted moral compass directs her to make-over their image by returning to the commoners, in the dwarfs’ name, the Queen’s tax collection that they stole, thereby elevating the social rejects’ status in the eyes of the people. That’s one mission accomplished. By turning the bandits into Robin Hoods, Snow White invites them to transform her into a member of their gang, a partner in arms against the indignities of the Queen. A Karate Kid-like training montage ensues as the leader Butcher (Martin Klebba) intones maxims on thieving. Yep, this sure isn’t your Disney-bred Snow White. But this is just one trope that Mirror Mirror turns on its head; most of them hinge on Snow White’s relationships with the Queen and Prince Alcott.

According to Tarsem, the Queen isn’t “evil; she’s just insecure.” I beg to differ (for reasons already enumerated), but there is something to be said for her vanity. One of the most amusing scenes revolves around her intensive beauty regimen before the gala. All kinds of disgusting “creams,” including animal dung, and insects that burrow in her bellybutton are applied. The Queen, reclining with her eyes covered, admonishes her attendants for taking pleasure in her revolting appearance. It’s unclear, given her quips and the servants’ smiling-to-frowning faces, whether the Queen delivers or receives the brunt of the joke about the ugliness of beauty’s upkeep. After all, she still comes out looking like Julia Roberts, whose casting is definitely meant to be a meta-commentary on the Hollywood edict that proclaims women of a certain age (or women who are not as desirable as they were when they were younger) utterly useless. In Snow White and the Huntsman, thirty-seven-year-old Charlize Theron plays the equivalent role, but rather than exploit her beauty for money (to buy things), Theron’s vampiric Ravenna uses it to usurp power and make everyone suffer under her rule because she has been abused by kings the world over. This constitutes a hyperbolic but provocative feminist assertion, that a woman subverts the culture’s idealization of femininity through an aggressive, albeit aberrant (or murderous), sexuality. Mirror Mirror‘s representation of power is cartoonish by comparison. So Tarsem may want to believe that the Queen’s vanity isn’t her motivation and that it doesn’t make her evil, but he forgets that insecurity and vanity are two sides of the same coin and together they make the Queen commit copious crimes.

If looks could kill, it’d be a much shorter movie. The unambiguously evil despot Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman. Image courtesy of http://www.ew.com.

And this is what makes troublesome Prince Alcott’s motivation in visiting the kingdom: to explore the prospect of marriage to the much older Queen. He hasn’t come to seek Snow White’s hand; in fact, before they meet at the ball, equally ridiculous dressed as a swan (Snow White) or rabbit (Prince Alcott), the prince seems to have no idea that she has ever existed. This is probably because the Queen has kept her beautiful stepdaughter under lock and key, but that doesn’t answer the question why Prince Alcott would ever be moved to pursue the Queen. Hasn’t he ever heard stories of the horrible treatment she inflicts on her people? Doesn’t he know that she’s bleeding money and wouldn’t have much to offer his country by way of wealth or prestige? Does he just not care about her character because she’s supposed to be the fairest of them all (of course, due to a little magic)? This isn’t the first time Prince Charming has ever come across as superficial, but Tarsem and screenwriters Marc Klein and Jason Keller are dead-set on deconstructing the character as an avatar of masculinity and an expression of women’s wish fulfillment. To his credit, the actor Armie Hammer is pretty game.

For starters, Prince Alcott’s shirtlessness at various points throughout the film offers more than just a little comic relief. His arrogance so inextricably linked to his body, whenever he is half-naked he feels vulnerable and emasculated (hence why he won’t admit that dwarfs overpowered him and stole his clothes). The scene of his meeting the Queen, who’s distracted by his nudity, reminded me of the scene in Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell, 2012) wherein the queen and princess look at each other from afar while sizing up the grotesquely muscular would-be suitor standing before their thrones. Similarly, it’s clear from Prince Alcott’s introduction as a beautiful man whose body is on display for each of the warring women (as well as for the audience) that Mirror Mirror aims to turn the fairytale upside down by sexually objectifying the prince. But that’s not the only way the filmmakers degrade the character.

Prince Alcott, as seen from the Queen’s perspective, makes quite an alluring first impression. Image courtesy of http://www.mynewplaidpants.blogspot.com.

As I previously mentioned, Prince Alcott arrives at the Queen’s ball (which itself made me wonder whether the filmmakers were confusing Snow White with Cinderella) outfitted with over-sized bunny ears. The Playboy/Playgirl aesthetic wasn’t lost on me, but his costume serves more to humiliate and endear him to Snow White, who is portentously dressed as a swan (although never an ugly duckling, she’s bound to come into her own as a confident woman). As if this didn’t sufficiently make Prince Alcott feel like a giant ass, the filmmakers’ story calls for further debasement. Midway through the film, the Queen seeks a magic love potion from her twisted psyche, which only manifests in the mirror where she sees a version of herself that as calm, wise, and, notably, unwrinkled. Predictably, things go awry, and Prince Alcott, by now in love with the Snow White who lives with the dwarf robbers, becomes hopelessly enamored of the Queen in the same way that a dog is loyal to his master. For a good fifteen minutes or so, the six-foot-five Hammer gets to act like a tiny lap dog, complete with heavy panting, tongue wagging, and non-diegetic yapping and whimpering sounds. At first annoyed by the mix-up in her plan, the Queen accepts this brand of fealty, memorably shooing him away, out of the castle, with a game of fetch.

The Puppy Love Potion cleverly demonstrates how easily Prince Charming is manipulated according to the Queen’s and Snow White’s individual needs and desires. The Queen just needs him to be present for their wedding, but when news first gets out that Prince Alcott has agreed to marry the Queen, Snow White kidnaps him. Notably, rather than use this language (or even “take hostage”), everyone, including both women, says that “Prince Alcott has been stolen,” thereby suggesting his objectified status as both moneybags and lover. And this is where one of the most perplexing instances takes place in the film’s rewriting of the Brothers Grimm fairytale.

Poor Prince Alcott. Napoleon has at him, but only Snow White has the antidote to the Queen’s Puppy Love Potion.

To break the spell, Snow White and the dwarfs try all manner of things: knocking him on the head, slapping his cheek, tickling his sides, whatever will inflict pain. Mainly, it’s just an excuse for the angry woodsmen to exact revenge on the pompous prince who has constantly belittled them. Eventually, Snow White deduces that a kiss will return him to her. OK. We get it, this Snow White is active and not passive, a sexual being rather than a rape victim (a fairytale situation made even more complex in novelist Julia Leigh’s debut feature from 2011, Sleeping Beauty). Upon hearing that this puckering up will constitute her first kiss, one of the dwarfs, Napoleon (Jordan Prentice), splashes powder on her face, reddens her lips with strawberries (didn’t the fruit make an appearance somewhere in the 1937 animated Disney feature?), and ties up her long black locks. It’s unclear whom this gesture is meant to arouse, because Prince Alcott for all intents and purposes is still a dog tied up in a chair. In fact, this scene is incredibly cringe-inducing because Snow White essentially violates the man, despite his emphatic protestations. So instead of Snow White requiring an unsolicited sexual overture to bring her back to consciousness, in Mirror Mirror she is the sexual predator who gets to act out this fairytale wish on the unconscious man of her dreams. And voilà! It works! This isn’t exactly what I had in mind for subverting the kissyface portion of the fairytale.

Honestly, the filmmakers lay thick throughout the picture how hopelessly smitten with Snow White one of the dwarfs is that I wish their romantic union could have had more of a shot. Sure, all seven of them come to love and respect her. But Half Pint (Mark Povinelli) in particular desires a romantic future with her, about which his family of friends wishes he would stop dreaming. Very tellingly, he’s heartbroken that Snow White chooses Prince Alcott over him, and at the dinner table when they all learn that the prince is to marry the Queen, some of the dwarfs wonder aloud how she could love such a jerk. Recalling Prince Alcott and Snow White’s sword-fighting duel, Chuckles (Ronald Lee Clark) says, “But he tried to kill her yesterday” simply because she’s in cahoots with the woodsmen who are the bane of his existence. Napoleon’s reply? “Exactly.” In this way, accepting Prince Alcott’s violent behavior from the day before as indicative of their belonging together makes for a extreme case of gendered playground role playing. Apparently, this is no different than a boy, who likes a girl, pushing her down in the sandbox because expressing interest and concern in girls isn’t manly behavior he wants to replicate in front of everyone. I know that the dwarfs act as a unit and therefore not a single one of them could ever make a play for Snow White’s affection. But imagine a story in which this romantic entanglement does take place. The comedy and/or drama could emerge from the friction between Snow White and the others. They might feel threatened by her presence; she might Yoko the band. And maybe she would have difficulty adjusting to his rustic way of life. Oh, to dream of the movies not yet made.

Snow White and her merry band of misfits. Would-be paramour Half Pint’s to the right of her face, in the red cap. Image courtesy of http://www.teaser-trailer.com.

The dwarfs build a charming collective. Racially diverse, with different interests and opinions, they complicate past representations of the group. They may have strange or slightly offensive names (Butcher? Half Pint? Chuckles? Wolf? Grimm? Grub?), but at least they are portrayed by dwarf actors. The dwarfs of Snow White and the Huntsman, you may recall, were played by such British heavyweights as Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, and others, whose heads were digitally super-imposed on those of dwarf actors. But enough about that; it’s puzzling why in the end the dwarfs throw all of their weight behind Prince Alcott. Touted as his personal army, they never actually fight beside him. Especially since Snow White locks Prince Alcott and her friends inside their hillside hut because, as she says, she wants to rewrite the fairytale ending by not relying on Prince Charming to rescue her from the evil forces of her stepmother. Hilariously, Prince Alcott pleads that she not change the story structure; it’s been “focus-grouped” to death and thus satisfies audiences. If only Snow White had remained so ardently independent through to the end of the picture.

After their “special” kiss, the vengeful Queen arrives in the forest hell-bent on killing them all. She sicks the beast on them, and later, once he has our heroine within his grasp, Snow White understands how the Queen can control him. She uses her father’s dagger to cut off the beast’s half-moon necklace, the exact same style that the Queen wears about her neck. In the slow resolution of this scene, I assumed that the Queen would reveal herself to be the beast, as if all the magic at her disposal has only ever gone toward presenting her in Julia Roberts’s pretty form. Nope. Nothing so cool. Instead, the beast is Snow White’s father, who morphs back into his human self (Sean Bean). He goes on to officiate Snow White and Prince Alcott’s wedding in the next scene. Rather than going on to rule benevolently and independently, as the triumphant Kristen Stewart does in Snow White and the Huntsman, in one fell swoop, Snow White’s relationships with the men in her life are redefined yet again. At once, she is an adult, married woman who has proven herself a brave and capable ruler, as well as a subordinate daughter. When I told my sister how much of a letdown I found this ending to be, she chastised me for wishing the King had stayed dead. “Wouldn’t you rather have your dad than be queen?” she asked. Well, yes, I would, but I wanted Snow White to remain free and powerful!

Finally, the last Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs trope that Mirror Mirror unravels concerns Snow White’s vanquishing of the Queen. The villainess attends the wedding ceremony as a peasant hag and gifts Snow White a poisoned apple. Her voice and cryptic diction give her away, and before Snow White takes a bite, she cuts a slice and offers it to the hag, telling her, “It’s important to know when you’ve been beaten.” That’s the exact phrase the Queen used to silence her stepdaughter early in the film. In this way, Snow White gives the Queen a taste of her own medicine, which this time proves lethal. So ding dong, the witch is dead! As if that wasn’t going to happen. Then the Queen, as narrator of the film-story (from beyond the grave?), concedes that it has been Snow White’s tale all along. Again, tell me something I don’t know.

One thought on “Long Take: Mirror Mirror, Off the Wall

  1. Turner Classic Movies aired BALL OF FIRE (Howard Hawks, 1941) on Sunday as part of their daylong spotlight on star Gary Cooper, reminding me that the film is a loose and imaginative adaptation of the SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS fairytale. I can’t believe I forgot about this one. I love this movie, especially because the Snow White character, a gangster’s girlfriend who sings in a nightclub (played by the great Barbara Stanwyck), falls in love with one of the “dwarfs” (Cooper), a linguist who lives with six older men with whom he collaborates on producing history’s most comprehensive encyclopedia. Great, great movie.

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