Hollywood’s “thing” at the moment seems to be revamping fairy tales. We’ve already endured Red Riding Hood and Beastly and the post-Twilight Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White And The Huntsmen is due out later this year. It’s fitting then that Tarsem Singh, Hollywood’s go-to man for undiluted extravagance, should be given free rein on a fairy tale.
His work on The Fall and Immortals showed a visual flair which is as distinctive and unique as any you could name. Expectations therefore were set high for a riotous blow-out of a movie; a high-energy, high-camp pseudo-pantomime and for the most part, that’s exactly what we’ve got.
But though the set and costume design is expectedly lavish (gigantic improbable dresses, glittering ballrooms) and it’s occasionally very funny, there’s a nagging feeling that it could have been so much more.
Sadly, though, the gaudiness isn’t quite grand enough and often comes across as tacky– it’s the difference between Christina Aguillera or Lady Gaga’s calculated excess and a guy in a gold-spandex onesie doing the funky chicken. Thankfully there are some impressive directorial flourishes – notably scenes in which the Queen steps through the mirror to a shimmering fantasy world – but there nothing here that seems the product of an unfettered imagination.
The plot is as the traditional fairy tale but with a few minor differences. Snow White (Lily Collins – daughter of Phil), instead of a fawning ingénue, fights back with the help of the dwarfs (now re-imagined as bandits rather than merely diminutive musical miners) and the prince (Armie Hammer) is now equal parts hapless and heroic.
Old Queenie remains as heartless as ever, embodied with sly relish by Julia Roberts. She’s easily the best thing about the movie – delivering acid-tongued put downs with a cocked eyebrow and hamming it up to hitherto unheard of levels – she’s clearly having a great time. Armie Hammer too is also clearly on cloud nine – consistently funny and charming, he recalls a thinner Brendan Fraser back when Brendan Fraser wasn’t unbearable.
Lily Collins, though beautiful and striving for feisty doesn’t really impress as Snow but that’s more the fault of an underwritten character (a sketchy subplot sees her try to liberate the villagers from the Queen’s tyrannical rule as a sort of pale Robin Hood) than anything to do with her acting (or her infinitely fascinating eyebrows).
Unfortunately her dwarf compatriots have precisely one personality trait each which is worked into a joke (one’s always hungry, one’s always howling, one wants to find love etc.) and repeated ad nauseum; they’re more annoying the lovable.
The script is hit and miss – it’s occasionally hilarious and is extremely genre savvy (a joke about focused group endings is a particular highlight) but the comedy is sporadic and the tone inconsistent. This is after all, a film aimed at younger viewers, so the dollops of slapstick which might make adult viewers sigh will most likely be right on the button for those not yet out of short trousers.
Singh’s efforts have always been more about style than substance and that’s the case here again. It’s just that this time, there’s not quite enough pizzazz to distract from its shortcomings.