Mirror Mirror, the first Snow White adaption of the year (Snow White and the Huntsman opens June 1), may be better than expected. In the hands of director Tarsem Singh, the film allures us with striking eye candy from start to finish, and the delightful cast, especially the beloved Julia Roberts, even elicits a few laughs. But, as with all of Tarsem's work (The Cell, The Fall, Immortals), it fails to tell a dense and cohesive story or connect with us emotionally.
Working with screenwriters Melisa Wallack and Jason Keller, Tarsem takes a fun approach to the classic fairy tale. He doesn't just put his own twists and turns on the story—the functionalities of the mirror, the apple, the prince—he modernizes it. Despite living in a dated fantasy world, the characters walk and talk like people today. There's also a self-awareness in how Mirror Mirror satirizes the story and genre—the pretentiousness of Snow White's name, for example. Such an update gives the film undeniable appeal and, to some degree, justifies its being made—after all, if rebooting a franchise, you better do something new.
The cast helps realize this modernization. Playing Snow White, Lily Collins (most notably from The Blind Side), looks like the princess with her pale skin and jet black hair while adding a whole new attitude, replacing naivety with spunk. It's not necessarily a remarkable turn, but Collins has a certain charm that makes her watchable, from a romance between her and Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer of The Social Network and J Edgar) to her humorous interactions with the seven dwarfs, who now live as thieves and rogues (who would have thought?). Roberts stands out the most in spite of her inconsistency trying to use a British accent. Full of spite and snark as the superficial Queen, she gives Mirror Mirror the little depth and amusement there is, as her ridiculous character epitomizes the very definition of vanity.
If the film works at all, it's partly due to these performances but primarily because of Tarsem's vivid visuals. While often criticized for creating films with shallow, incoherent stories, he is known for his distinct aesthetics—elaborate sets, strange and bizarre images, a vast array of colors—and he flaunts them here. Whether the cleverly animated introduction, the bright costumes, the high-scale setting for the mirror scenes, the swift action sequences, or the Queen's many eccentric parties, Mirror Mirror is a colorful and magical visual feast.
Unfortunately, Tarsem—in his typical fashion—emphasizes the visuals at the expense of story. In fact, it seems like he built the story around the visuals—several scenes look spectacular but don't advance character or narrative at all—instead of the other way around. This leaves Mirror Mirror annoyingly incoherent because the many moving parts don't work together for the good of the overarching story. Because it's so muddled, we don't know who or what to focus on or care about. We're never allowed to go beneath its dazzling surface; we're never enthralled.