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Heigh ho, heigh ho, heigh ho, heigh ho, heigh ho, heigh ho…

Reel Time
Dale Hill
flickwitch.com

            When the Zeitgeist gets going it can really crank  ‘em out.

            Over the years there have been any number of changes rung on Disney’s 1937 classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” including “Snow White and the Three Stooges,” which I admit is on my Netflix queue.

            This year we get two versions, only a few months apart. June 1 is the announced date for “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which looks like an attempt to turn the story into “The Lord of the Rings,” but none the worse for that, I imagine, and admirable for giving Kristin Stewart a chance to do something besides whimper and cringe.

            What we’re watching now is “Mirror Mirror” in which Julia Roberts as the Queen is not so much wicked as insecure, and very, very funny. But then she gets to play off Nathan Lane, and that would inspire any actor to new comic heights.

            “Mirror Mirror” is a Postmodern feast, in the sense that it’s concerned with ornamented visuals and doesn’t take itself seriously. If some of the actors’ performances weren’t enough reason to see this movie, then those visuals certainly would be. There’s the art direction, which is sumptuous, colorful, and sometimes breathtaking. The castle, on its pinnacle over a frozen lake, could be an architectural fantasy by William Timlin, and the lofty interiors beg to be photographed in stately symmetry, which is mostly how director Tarsem Singh does it. In fact it’s all so stately and symmetrical that it’s a bit of a relief to get into the dark forest, where everything is jumbled and shadowy and the camera work becomes jumpy and disorienting.

            But the most spectacular visual delights are due to costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who adds Postmodern ornamentation and color to historic designs with a flair that will make you gasp and re-think your Halloween plans. Her experience in film, stage, rock videos and grand opera gave her a theatrical sense that is seldom seen these days outside the work of Julie Taymor . Alas, Eiko died just after completing her work on this film, so as a tribute you should go and be amazed.

            You’ve noticed by now that this is not a traditional retelling of the fairy tale, and why should it be? Disney aced that version 75 years ago, so what’s to be done? Well, you could lighten it up and turn it into a comedy, with lots of anachronistic laugh lines and ironic self-reference, which is another way it shows its Postmodern chops. And for the most part, this approach works, though you might even call it a parody if it weren’t so good natured, and if it didn’t tell its own story so well.

            We can be sure that Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane know their way around a page of comic dialogue, but the surprise is Prince Charming, or in this case Prince Andrew Alcott. Armie Hammer is what my mother would have called a fine-looking boy, and he is that: tall, handsome, as preppy as all get-out. Up until now we’ve only seen him as solid, stolid establishment types, such as the dreaded Winkelvoss twins in “Social Network.” How were we to know that he had a comic streak just waiting to be set loose? He’s funny when he arrives at the castle in his drawers; he’s funny when he spanks Snow White with his sword (not quite as kinky as it sounds); and he’s REALLY funny when the Queen gives him a magic puppy-love potion by mistake. Those looks, that talent, AND a sense of comic timing: it’s positively indecent.

            The Seven Dwarfs, while not as memorable as Doc, Grumpy, Sneezy, Dopey, Happy, Sleepy and Bashful, at least have the benefit of being rather creative highwaymen, with crazy boots that should lead you to a web search for Spring-Heeled Jack, an actual Victorian mystery.

            Sorry, what? Snow White? Well the poor dear gets short shrift in this version, even though the writers and director make a perfunctory effort at turning her into a feisty bandit lady. Lily Collins is less pale than she is colorless as our heroine. Her most noticeable feature is unfortunately her eyebrows, which, with some deal of tweezing, might look a bit less like a pair of caterpillars. In the opening narration, the Queen says, “This is my story, not hers.” That’s the way it turns out, and you should be perfectly happy with the results.