Director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar has found a story worthy of his ravishing visuals and the result is an enchanting update of the classic fairy tale of Snow White.
Julia Roberts is clearly having a blast as the evil queen whose hostile takeover impulse is so strong she tells us from the beginning that we are hearing her version of the story. But we know from the first moment that our heroine will be the “pretentiously named” Snow White. She does commune with a songbird as the movie opens, but this is not the Snow White warbling by the wishing well about waiting for her prince or sleeping until she is rescued with a magical kiss. Sister is doing it for herself — sword fighting, leading a brave, if diminutive, gang of marauders, and doing some rescuing of her own.
Once upon a time there was a happy kingdom filled with music and dance. But after the king remarried, he disappeared, leaving the Queen to impose higher and higher taxes on the burdened populace and lock princess Snow White (Lily Collins of “The Blind Side”) in her room. When she timidly ventures out on her 18th birthday because there is to be a party in the castle, the Queen sneers, “Is there a fire in your bedroom? Because that would be the only reason for you to leave.”
The Queen is broke and desperately need to marry a wealthy royal, and for that she needs to use all of her magical powers to continue to appear young and beautiful. Prince Alcott (“Social Network” Winklevii-portrayer Armie Hammer) looks like the answer, despite his showing up without his clothes, having been robbed in the woods by seven mysterious accordion-legged marauders. But at the costume ball, he sees Snow White in a magnificent swan dress (don’t think Bjork, think faaabulous) and instantly knows that she is the fairest of them all.
But Snow has other issues on her mind, after her first venture outside the castle shows her what a cruel and selfish ruler her stepmother has been. She becomes an outlaw, joining forces with seven men short of stature but big of heart. And the Queen, aided by her sniveling courtier (who better for that role than Nathan Lane) tries to use every bit of magic and old fashioned evil to ensnare the Prince before the magic mirror — with help from a very tight corset, a disgusting beauty ritual, and a love potion — are no longer enough.
As Tarsem and sometimes Tarsem Singh, the director has made ads, music videos (REM’s “Losing My Religion”) and films like “The Fall” and “The Cell,” all filled with richly imagined images of striking beauty. Working with production designer Tom Foden and the late costume designer Eiko Ishioka, he has created a setting that is part Maxfield Parrish, part Richard Avedon, with gorgeous elegance and panache and with insight and meaning. The mirror is wonderfully constructed out of liquid that leads to a room where the Queen consults another version of herself. The costumes are not just splendid; they are witty and character-revealing, with the Queen a peacock and Snow White a swan. Hammer is handsome and unexpectedly funny. And Collins is luminous, genuinely magical as Snow White, sweet and brave, and it is a pleasure to watch her growing understanding of the world and her ability and responsibility to make it better. He keeps the tone irreverent, but never snarky. There are some funny lines (and one unnecessary and un-funny crude joke) and some modern twists, but the heart of the story in every way goes back to the original folk tales, especially a welcome new twist near the end. The Grimm brothers might not recognize some of the details of their classic fairy tale and Disney might be surprised by a princess who does not wait for her prince to come to get things done. But the themes of honor, justice, romance, and the search for a happily ever after ending are every bit as satisfying as the original.
Parents should know that this film includes a scary beast, sword fights, some schoolyard-style gross-out jokes and one crude reference to being “taken advantage” of.
Family discussion: Why didn’t Snow White tell the truth about who brought back the gold? How did Snow White learn the truth about the beast? How did the costumes at the ball tell you something about each of the characters?
If you like this, try: the classic Disney animated version of “Snow White,” “Ella Enchanted” and “Stardust”