A version of this review appeared in The Age, March 29, 2012.
More than most fairy tales, Snow White seems tailor-made for the movies: a highly dramatic story about deadly rivalry between beautiful women, easily modified to fit any genre from Gothic horror to camp farce. Consistency of tone turns out to be a problem for this live-action adaptation directed by visual whiz Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, who often bills himself simply as “Tarsem”, and who apparently lives by the creed “Give me control of a film's imagery, and you can do what you like with the script.”
The family-friendly Mirror Mirror offers less scope for Tarsem's humourless but wild imagination than did his recent Immortals, a 3D action epic where the average shot looked like a Byzantine altar painting with more exploding heads. Here, he comes as close as anyone could to a live-action Disney cartoon: as usual, his lush, hieratic images are so blatantly artificial that every setting suggests either a painted backcloth or a digital illusion. There's no shortage either of his trademark quasi-surrealist touches: the wicked queen (Julia Roberts) plays human chess with her courtiers, and covers herself with creepy-crawlies as part of her beauty regime.
But if Tarsem wants to sweep us away on a magic carpet of wonder, the screenwriters Jason Keller and Melissa Wallack keep bringing things down to earth with weakly anachronistic gags that mock the very notion of fairy-tale romance. The actors are all at sea, especially the miscast Roberts, whose arch manner never suggests even a pantomime version of evil; conversely, Lily Collins makes an overly knowing Snow White, smirking demurely as if she'd just stepped off the set of Gossip Girl. Clad in earth tones and perpetually bickering, the dwarves are a rather uncharming bunch; Armie Hammer clearly enjoys sending himself up rotten as a fatuous handsome prince, but assessment of his leading man potential will have to wait for another day.