mirror mirror: shrek with (too much?) ambition

I watched another movie by Tarsem Singh this week, Mirror Mirror. He also directed Immortals, which I wrote about a couple of months ago. I like to write about outliers, and Singh’s movies are vivid and cinematic in a way that most modern Hollywood directors don’t bother with. Think Avatar but with arty intentions and even richer detail.

Mirror Mirror is a retelling of Snow White, which saves me the trouble of summarizing the plot. Suffice it to say that in this version the seven dwarves are thieves with a hideout. To get what I meant by “vivid” above, take a look at this screen grab of their den:

Check out the meticulously arranged mess in the front there. It looks like the perfect still life, and I suspect it’s a visual reference to some classic painting I don’t know, but in any event, the shot gives you a sense of what the movie is like: lots and lots of texture. This is a film where the bandit hideout has elegant, patterned wallpaper. (Look at the background of that screen grab and you’ll see a sort of Japanese engraving sort of motif.)

I’m going to skip making the long-form case for this idea because you can just watch the movie yourself, which I think can only be qualified as having lush visuals. My second and last piece of evidence to this point will be this shot, which is just supposed to function as a transition out of one scene to another:

How do I say this emphatically enough? Even the incidental weather in this movie is breathtaking.

Without showing actual clips, it’s harder for me to justify calling the movie “cinematic,” by which I mean the editing and the cinematography more generally, but I think you can take my word for it. One really awesome sequence is a series of beauty treatments the queen receives, many of which are shown in close-up. The movie is worth watching almost for this scene alone; the rhythm of the cutting and the imagery are both superb.

Anyway, now I’ll lay out the problem with Mirror Mirror as I see it before I run out of synonyms for “pretty.” Singh’s overkill approach toward visual beauty (“overkill” meant in the good sense here) has worked well in his other movies — The Cell, Immortals are the ones I’ve seen — because those movies go for dramatically and psychologically intense effects. But the tone of Mirror Mirror is clearly supposed to be lighthearted. You can get a good sense of the irreverence from the trailer (as well as essentially the entirety of the plot if you’re paying attention).

See what I mean? The movie is trying to be something like a live-action Shrek, with funny riffs on fairy tale conventions and a distinctly 21st century sense of irony. (Julia Roberts is terrific as the catty queen.) It’s probably important to note that the movie isn’t as funny as it probably could have been just because of timing or delivery or whatever je ne sais quoi makes some movies hilarious. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood, but Mirror x 2 didn’t make me laugh very much.

But that’s kind of besides my main point in writing today, however. What’s important to me is that even if the movie were funny, the incredible beauty that Singh brings to the screen wouldn’t really work with this kind of comedy anyway. You can get a sense of what I mean from two screen grabs. In this scene, Brighton (played by Nathan Lane) is supposed to have killed Snow White in the forest and put her organs in a sack to show the queen. He hasn’t actually killed Snow White, though, so he’s only brought a bag of leftovers from a butcher’s shop — thus the string of sausages he is pulling out in this shot:

This is one of the few totally visual gags of Mirror Mirror and it gives you a good sense of the overall tone it’s going for. The queen doesn’t notice the sausages, so Brighton gets away with the deception. A couple of shots later, we get a wonder of staging, production design, and cinematography:

When I try to imagine this great depth and staging in a conventional Hollywood comedy, I find I can’t; either by convention these movies just aren’t as carefully shot as Singh’s, or they shouldn’t be. So, in short, the problem is that the Shrek vibe doesn’t mesh with the immaculate craftsmanship that Tarsem brings to bear on his work. The two tones are mismatched, in this movie and probably in all of the few movies where it’s attempted. I guess that means the movie is kind of a failure, but it’s so incredible to look at, I still think everybody who gives two hoots about “cinema” ought to see it.

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