(Warning: This review is even more of a mess than usual, but hopefully it’s still mildly coherent. Will try to fix it up later even though that goes against my ethos)
You know the part of fairy tales that has always struck me as fairly inaccurate: no, not the magic, mystic creatures or eternal happily ever afters, but the line that comes well before all of those things, “Once Upon a Time…” It strikes me as odd because I honestly cannot think of a time when a tale introduced as such was told only the once or for that matter in only the one way. Fairy tales, as the first and major movement of folklore, were designed to be adapted as they are authored each time by the teller as is the way with verbal storytelling, so it’s certainly not startling to hear the stories spoken a little differently here and there, though when our current obsession with all things adapted hits these stories it does produce some strange results and that is certainly true of this, Tarsem Singh’s take on the Snow White story. Yes it still stars the wicked queen, the exiled ingénue, the handsome prince and those now infamous dwarves but you would be forgiven for forgetting throughout the film that this is that same old story, so strong are the changes in setting, style and action. If an adaptation is to be seen as a reflection of the original property, than this is surely one made on the most abstract of surface. I wonder mirror, mirror on the wall, is this the strangest fairy tale adaptation of them all?
“Strange” is a strange way to describe a picture in that it contains no set preconceived connotation, it can be both a compliment and a criticism depending on the lay of other circumstances; the meaning of my using it here is similarly ambiguous because I’m still not sure if I liked or loathed the movie for its strangeness, though it certainly made it an interesting experience. The tone of the picture is perhaps best summarized by its closing credits, which consist first of a string of bad coda comedy (Chuckles joins the circus! Grimm wrote fairy tales!) and then a Bollywood number that I was utterly unprepared for given that A) the film hadn’t featured a single song to that point and B) is set in a world where India doesn’t even exist. Some have said that Singh is an Indian name so the moment makes sense, but personally I don’t see that logic; I look instead at his prior oeuvre and disagree on that basis alone. This is a fitting cross-section to study because the film itself is constantly switching from the pat of puns and derivative plotting, straight to the strangest string of ideas that the man’s intense imagination can induce; it’s more than strange then, it’s schitzophrenic.
That too though is somewhat suitable as Singh’s career is as schizoid as any that I have ever seen: he has made one sadistic serial killer movie, one antiquated adventure movie, one historical epic and now a fairy tale feature; each subsequent step is as disparate a departure as the last. Despite their intensely different genres his films are all tied together through the singularity of his visual style, no-one working today can touch the colour palette or crazily creative compositions of this man (Tim Burton eat your heart out; another coherent comparison given how close this film feels to that man’s attempt to modernize Alice in Wonderland) and yet it seems that despite his visionary status Singh is with each new film stepping closer and closer to corporate status. My theory is that the trials and tribulations that kept us from seeing The Fall for a number of years are what soured Singh on sourcing and scripting projects himself and this is a shame because since then the content of his cinema has by far failed to match the coolness of its looks. Mirror, Mirror is not a passion project for the artist formerly known just as Tarsem (his name seems to change as rapidly as his genre), it is a studio picture that he given permission to pervert, though only to an allowed extent and that shows; the whole thing look amazing yes, but it is only on occasion that the film really presents you with a truly striking visual ( The Marionette’s are the only memorable one) the rest of the time the look is simply sugar there to sweeten a bitter pill. Despite Tarsem’s talent it is instantly clear that there was no interesting idea at the core of this projects conception – short of the possibility of profit – and thus the script is massively shallow, though it would no doubt have seemed even worse were it not for the trappings Tarsem distracts us with; I dread the thought of those forced to attend the read-through.
The writing here is among the worst kind to experience, though that sounds much more harsh than I mean it to. It’s not that the writing here is the worst that I have ever heard nor that it is the most despicable, in fact the inverse is true. I normally rail against the laziness inherent in modern moviemaking but the screenwriters here really tried to make something special but just fall short of succeeding; missing the moon and plummeting deep down into the earth’s crust courtesy of gravities’ grievous acceleration. The story is spruced up by giving the Queen’s kingdom some depth of politics, even if it is only ‘She punishes the peasants!’, and this provides the potential for emotional investment in her downfall, a relevant occupation and origin story for the dwarves plus a decent reason for the Prince’s very existence. The dialogue is heavily modernised, utilising many current turns of phrase that sound out of place in this world though these moments are intentionally milked for the entertainment inherent in their anachronism. The whole affair is also partly matured with constant, blatant sexual references, one character mentions outwardly that he was raped by a grasshopper without any kind of Shrek-like entendre. Singh must also be something of a sadist and a sodomite as his Snow White is seemingly always getting slapped, tapped and otherwise assaulted in the anal region whenever there is an action scene, and of these there are more than one would expect. These aren’t necessarily bad choices, they too could go either way, but I have to say that here they didn’t work so well.
These are all the kind of changes that a company would make when turning a fairy tale into a movie, we’ve hit every buzzword, only no-one actually involved in the project actually seems to be behind this approach; instead they are aiming to make something simpler and sweeter, a new generations Princess Bride perhaps, only to find that their two visions are contrasting and that the film itself falls apart under the conflict. Perhaps then it is not the mirror but the material that causes such strange shapes to appear upon that other side of vision, perhaps it is reality that is perverted. After Snow White kisses the Prince to lift his curse she locks him in a house and as she leaves to fight the beast and save the day he yes, “You’re messing with tried and true storytelling. It’s been focus-tested. We know that it works!” and in a strange way that line felt like a reflection on the film as a whole; they are messing with what is tried and true but we do know that this can work, even though it doesn’t in this case despite what the focus-groups will tell you. Let’s just hope that they can get it right the next time that they come upon this tale, which conviniantly enough will be in only a few months time.