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Review: 'Mirror Mirror' is a frivolous family film

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
March 30, 2012 -- Updated 1357 GMT (2157 HKT)
Julia Roberts, left, and Lily Collins star in
Julia Roberts, left, and Lily Collins star in "Mirror Mirror."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In "Mirror Mirror," Julia Roberts plays the evil queen, Snow White's murderous stepmother
  • Lily Collins is charming as the innocent princess
  • Armie Hammer's a hoot as the arrogant -- but oh-so-eligible -- prince

(CNN) -- Top-billed Julia Roberts is comprehensively miscast in "Mirror Mirror," the first of the year's two big-budget, live-action "Snow White" movies.

Even so, this pretty bauble of a picture -- which looks like it was filmed in a giant snow globe - scrapes together enough invention, exuberance and goofiness to skate over this blatant misstep, and Roberts herself is so willing to give it the old college try you wind up rooting for her regardless.

She plays the evil Queen, Snow White's murderous stepmother -- a role that calls for cold-blooded malice, arrogance, cunning and class, qualities conspicuously lacking in this warm, earthy, intuitive actress, and who settles for a snooty (but inconsistent) English accent as the next best thing.

Still, good for Julia for having some fun at the expense of midlife vanity.

As we all know, the Queen is hung up on what her mirror tells her about getting old -- she can't bear being eclipsed in the beauty stakes by her stepdaughter Snow (Lily Collins, Phil's daughter). In one of the movie's funniest jibes, she submits to an excruciating beauty treatment involving bird poop, snails and scorpion stings (a fairytale botox) to give her that extra edge -- a regimen that's probably only a slight exaggeration on what Hollywood royalty routinely puts up with to keep in front of the cameras past a certain age.

Roberts, 44, has never been that kind of glamour-puss. It's her personality that makes her so attractive, so she can afford to smile. And she cuts quite a figure in the outrageously decadent dresses, designed for her by Eiko Ishioka.

The Japanese stylist, who died in January, is best known in the West for her costumes for Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" as well as pop stars Bjork and Grace Jones, and the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics. Ishioka's aggressively sumptuous, sometimes surrealistic, creations have also been a staple in all three of Tarsem Singh's previous films: "The Cell," "The Fall" and, recently, "Immortals." Her contribution to "Mirror Mirror" is so pronounced, it's only fitting the film is dedicated to her.

Roberts' gowns include a vermilion peacock creation so ornate it requires its own tax levy on the hard-pressed peasantry -- but Ishioka's genius is equally well displayed in the perfectly chosen headwear that goes a long way to distinguishing the personalities of the film's seven dwarfs.

These pugnacious rogues (Napoleon, Wolf, Grub, Butcher and Grimm are some of their names) are a very different crew from Disney's loveable gold-diggers, but they're Singh's best defense against a wobbly, hit-and-miss script.

Woodland bandits, they dress up as bandy-legged giants (Ishioka provides them with stilts that seem to be made of accordion sleeves) to set upon unwary travelers, like Armie Hammer's Prince Alcott. In due course, they take in the exiled Snow -- in return for housecleaning and cooking services -- and teach her how to stand on her own two feet.

Collins is charming as the innocent princess, the poison apple in her stepmother's eye, but the film's real surprise is the tongue-in-cheek tone, a lightness that stands in sharp relief to the turgid breast-beating this filmmaker went in for in "Immortals."

It's been a while since Nathan Lane got this much screen time to camp it up, as the Queen's butler, Brighton (even if he does spend some of it in the form of cockroach), and Hammer's a hoot as the arrogant -- but oh-so-eligible -- prince.

"Mirror Mirror" may not add up to the sum of its better parts -- and it's a curious time of year to release it -- but there should be an audience for a frivolous family film with this many frills and ruffles.

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