The early 2010s were an odd time for fantasy films and fairy tale retellings. The success of the Twilight franchise in the late 2000s ushered in a new market and demand for fantasies and fairy tales geared towards young adult audiences—or, in other words, star-crossed romances that gave teenagers an outlet to express their emotional angst, but were often hopelessly contrived.

Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood and Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman were most certainly produced in Twilight’s shadow, as was Daniel Barnz’s Beastly, an inconsistent albeit modest attempt at a young adult adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. While male-dominated media is still quick to bash Twilight’s ongoing success and influence, the franchise did pave the way for a new wave of female-driven fairy tales, regardless of how lacking their screenplays were for feminist critics. Among them was Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror, an extravagant and imaginative take on Snow White, starring Julia Roberts and Lily Collins.

While Mirror Mirror exists in a realm that is somewhat adjacent to Twilight or Red Riding Hood, it was released at a time when young adult media was dominated by vampires and mythology—making it almost impossible not to read it through that lens. It was perhaps mature enough to generate interest for teenagers, but nowhere near dark enough to not also be marketed as a family film. Thus, Mirror Mirror’s true audience, at least in the context of 2012 cinema, was unclear.

It was also much too loose an adaptation to have been produced by Disney and was definitely not a musical. In fact, the film finds fault with Disney’s song-and-dance approach to fairy tales, setting the stage for a tale of trickery, deceit and dark magic. Even Armie Hammer’s Prince Charming, who has always been the desirable hunk we now know him to be, paled in comparison to Taylor Lautner, Chris Hemsworth, or Alex Pettyfer. Indeed, Mirror Mirror was not dark or attractive enough for Twilight fans but was still a bit too twisted to please family friendly audiences—which is the even bigger tragedy, since the extremely clever screenplay and Julia Roberts’ performance alone should have been enough to make the film a certified classic, or at the very least a cult favorite.

Roberts’ layered, campy performance of the Evil Queen, as well as the reflection in her magic mirror, is in itself a work of art. “Everyone has magic within them, but very few discover it and learn how to spend it wisely,” the mirror tells the Queen. “Trust me. I am, after all, merely a reflection of you. Well, not an exact reflection. I have no wrinkles.” Taking on a role as campy and egotistical as the Evil Queen in a Snow White tale requires a certain amount of ability, dedication and stage presence to sell it, but what’s more impressive and showstopping is when a star can deliver a performance that is even more compelling as the Queen’s reflection. For a brief moment, it’s almost baffling to imagine the same actress giving Erin Brockovich’s iconic “I don’t need your pity, I need a paycheck” speech. Roberts’ ominously cynical narration as both the Queen and her mirror brings to mind her turn voicing Charlotte the spider in 2006’s Charlotte’s Web—but this time, this spider most certainly won’t be saving a pig or putting others above herself.

Much of the praise that Mirror Mirror did receive was centered around Roberts’ performance, with many critics agreeing that she did in fact steal the show with her accent, costumes and sheer ability to deliver a bitter retort like any Evil Queen would. (The future queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race should definitely be taking notes.) But her performance alone was not enough to carry the rest of the film for its naysayers, who said that while Mirror Mirror might be nice to look at, its aesthetically pleasing features and Julia Roberts did not make up for the supposedly boring dialogue or lack of chemistry between Prince Charming and Snow White (Collins). As Roger Ebert wrote, “The story is a listless tale that moves at a stately pace through settings that could have supported fireworks. Indeed, the characters who seem to care the most about each other are the dwarfs.” The film received the most criticism over cast chemistry and action when its real strengths lied in the nuanced performances of said cast with cheeky and smart dialogue, one that usually tends to fly under the radar.

Let alone the fact that, in this version of the tale, it is Snow White who has to save the Prince using true love’s first kiss, Mirror Mirror has its central female character overcome her struggles and turmoil by discovering her own inner strength—just as Lily James would soon do in the titular role of Disney’s live-action Cinderella three years later. Similar to Cinderella learning the power of courage and kindness, Collins’ version of Snow White knows her worth and, thanks to her dwarf friends, can certainly hold her own in a fight. “You know, all that time locked up in the castle I did a lot of reading,” she tells the Prince. “I read so many stories where the Prince saves the Princess in the end. I think it’s time we change that ending.” In this refreshing take, Snow White knows that while we may not get to choose where we come from, we can choose where we go from there. In an era where film critics were crying that film franchises like Twilight were detrimental to Hollywood’s perception of women, they were also quick to gloss over the market it created for modern fantasies and fairy tales where those very women take back the power that was stolen from them.

If it had been more successful, Mirror Mirror could have been the vehicle that drove Lily Collins to higher commercial success. While the beloved actress has always received glowing reviews for her supporting performances in films like The Blind Side or Abduction, she—much like Snow White’s sharp dialogue—has tended to fly under the radar, showcasing her talents in offbeat indie films like Stuck in Love or Love, Rosie but never being able to find her footing as a mainstream star, evidenced by her leading roles in flops such as The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones or Rules Don’t Apply. Collins has since grown as an actress with her gripping performances in the Netflix vehicles To the Bone and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, so it’s truly mainstream media’s own fault that they never manage to recognize or properly place her talent. Maybe that’s why Hollywood refuses to cast her in an Audrey Hepburn biopic.

In a strange turn of events, Mirror Mirror also arrived a mere two years before Disney’s Into the Woods, a campy fantasy film that showcased the musical talents of Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine and Meryl Streep. While Mirror could have never functioned as a musical (and even if it was, it would have flopped harder than it already did), it had a much stronger story and its camp value, owed entirely to Julia Roberts, was far more entertaining. Into the Woods, however, was the subject of large critical praise and received three Academy Award nominations: with Streep getting her fourth nod for Best Supporting Actress. She didn’t win, and rightfully so, but Streep did give an impeccable performance as the Witch that was surely worth the nomination. It’s just a huge shame that Roberts couldn’t have received the same nomination for a similar role in a similar film, for an incredibly dedicated and campy performance of a character much better known in popular culture.

  • Secret in Their Eyes

    Even the far superior (but still flawed) Argentine original leans too heavily on a clever …
  • Criminally Underrated: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

    In this feature our writers defend films they feel have not received their due. There are …
  • Ava Max: Heaven & Hell

    Max’s comfortingly familiar stage presence is sure to trigger nostalgia for early 21st cen…
  • Katy Perry: Smile

    Fortunately for everyone, Smile does see Perry getting back on the right track. …
  • Troye Sivan: In a Dream

    In a Dream is Sivan’s escape from the past that can still haunt us in our dreams. …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Ava Max: Heaven & Hell

Max’s comfortingly familiar stage presence is sure to trigger nostalgia for early 21st cen…