Mirror Mirror, I should like to accentuate the positive: at least Eiko Ishioka is dead. Hang tight, I did that wrong. I mean to say, of course, that since Ishioka passed away in January, 2012, it is a pleasing thing that the legendary Japanese artist, designing costumes for only her eighth theatrical film in 27 years, should have ended with such an unabashed high note; because holy crap on a cracker, but the costumes in Mirror Mirror look good. They are as creative and flawlessly-executed as anything in Ishioka's previous three collaborations with director Tarsem Singh (and that is a very high bar to clear indeed); not having seen the obscurities in Ishioka's filmography, I am anyway content to say that her work in Mirror Mirror is very possibly the best thing she's done, or at least it is tied only with her Oscar-winning work in Bram Stoker's Dracula. So no matter what goes wrong with the story, there's always that comfort: you can look at what people are wearing, and in something functionally identical to 100% of the shots in the movie, you will be looking at something that will blow your eye sockets apart.
In fact, that holds true to pretty much everything about the visuals, and that isn't really much of a surprise, given who Tarsem is and the team he has re-assembled: it's mostly the same creative team behind last year's Immortals, and whatever criticisms we can make of that film (and there are many of them), "it looks bad" sure as hell isn't one of them; Mirror Mirror is, across the board, an improvement. Ishioka's costumes, of course, and Tom Foden's production design has a flair for Disneyesque watercolor unreality that has been given physical depth and grounding, and Jille Azis and Paul Hotte's set decoration is full of gleefully overworked touches and lavish detail. The film waltzes right up to the border between hugely imaginative and garish, swirling its mile-wide dresses about in luxurious arcs as it does so, and perches just exactly on the right side of that border, and looks every inch like a real-live (or at least, reasonably well-CGI'd) version of some old book of fairy stories that you haven't seen since you were five or six years old, with gold leaf everywhere, and super-saturated colors sometimes serving as the daintiest of grace notes (in fact, for all its opulence, the film mostly limits itself to a reasonably narrow band of colors), and sometimes, particularly in the end, when the heroes have won and it's time to celebrate, like a retina-scarring orgasm of every bright color in the spectrum. It is a film that goes so far as to credit, among the main crew heads, a color designer (I didn't think to write the gentleman's name down, and I cannot find it online), which is all the proof we need to know that Tarsem had a clear idea in mind of how important bold yet disciplined use of color was going to be in the overall scheme of things.
And it's not just spectacle for the sake of it, either (a criticism that can and has been made of Tarsem's The Fall, though I'd still lay down my life in defense of that movie): all those colors are used to mark the development of the narrative and of the characters within it - the particular balance of gold and blue ends up being a nice visual shortcut to establish whether the hero or villain is in control at any given point. Though spectacle is nice too, and one of the utmost pleasures of Mirror Mirror lies in keeping track of all the niceties of detail and variety of styles in the costumes, ranging from a sleek black and blue swordfighting outfit to a masked ball full of stylistic animal costumes, and pleasure, wherever it comes, is worth having.
It's good that the movie looks so good; film being a visual medium and all, it's entirely fair to say that a huge part of the "point" of Mirror Mirror lies in creating a physically plausible version of an illustrated storybook. A+ all around on that count. It's especially good, because the story the film tells is just not quite there - not "bad", in the way that Immortals was actively bad in between all the gonzo costumes and luxurious 3-D swoops through immaculately fussy sets (Mirror Mirror is, I am happy to say, in glorious 2-D). What we've got here is a comic, slangy update of the Snow White legend, told largely from the perspective of the Wicked Queen, played with bored, self-indulgent nastiness by Julia Roberts, in an unabashed star turn that is far and away more watchable than anything she's done since Duplicity, getting some gentle digs in at the actress's advancing age while reiterating that she's a hell of a lot more fun to watch than the pretty pseudo-Audrey Hepburn starring opposite her, Lily Collins as the feisty, cloistered Snow White. It's a snarky, post-feminist version of the tale, in which Snow White fights with the handsome Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) rather than falling in love with him, in which the seven dwarfs are a band of morally grey wise-asses, and in which the virginal princess has to take charge to win the day rather than let the prince ride to the rescue; but for all that, it's not hardly Shrek, wallowing in smug, self-congratulatory irony, with only one or two overtly "hip" moments that collapse into a pile of bitter tears - the really intensely awful moments from the trailers ("Snow White. Snow What? Snow Way!", "Say hello to my little friends") have somehow managed to avoid being in the film proper, suggesting that, like the people advertising Tangled, the people marketing Mirror Mirror are actively rooting for their film to fail.
What the film ends up being, in fact, is a very straightforward little fable that throws poppy, modern attitude into the very straight-laced world of a Grimm fairy tale, and kudos to writers Melisa Wallack and Jason Keller for letting themselves play things so square as that, even if the mixture ends up separating rather badly. It is a harmless screenplay, and that is enough to get Mirror Mirror a pass, whereas Immortals simply sucked too hard to overlook it; for the totality of Tarsem's vision, aided by all the wonderful people who helped him bring it together, is just too damn delicious to write the whole thing off on account of it not being either clever or funny in its redressing of fairy tale tropes, and on account of nobody in the cast besides Roberts (and Nathan Lane, as her toady, in a few of his scenes, and Mare Winningham, who barely gets any screentime as the kindly head of the castle kitchen) really has any idea of what they're doing or why. And the concluding Bollywood pastiche is bright and kinetic, and set to a ludicrously earwormy song, whose hook is the phrase "I believe", repeated 12 times ("believe" is a totemistic word throughout the movie"). The visuals are nowhere near as ambitious as they are in either The Fall or The Cell, Tarsem's two reigning masterpieces, but as sheer eye-candy goes, Mirror Mirror is unlikely to be passed or even given a real run for its money in the rest of 2012. That's not the best reason to endorse a movie, of course, but for some of us, it's just enough.