March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Julia Roberts is a very good sport when it comes to being bad in 'Mirror Mirror'


Friday, March 30 —  While there was Happy, Sneezy, Bashful and Dopey, the retinue of dwarfs in Disney’s “Snow White” did not include Snarky. Screenwriters Marc Klein and Jason Keller remedy that in “Mirror Mirror,” an attempt to rewrite Snow’s tale from the perspective of her tormenter, the power-mad queen, played with admirable comic zest by a hammily haughty Julia Roberts. Despite the title, the movie has no relation to Gregory Maguire’s compelling 2003 novel, which also tweaked and twisted the Brothers Grimm story; this “Mirror” seems to reflect the influences of “Shrek,” Drew Barrymore’s “Ever After” and, particularly when Roberts is around, “The Carol Burnett Show.”

A diva of a despot, Queenie tries to steal the show from the first scene. Roberts provides the acerbic narration for the opening sequence, in which we learn how her once-flourishing land full of merry, mirthful citizens — “Apparently, no one had a job back then: just singing and dancing,” the Queen huffs — fell upon hard times. Despite warnings about impending bankruptcy from her downtrodden footman, Brighton (Nathan Lane, doing that patented Nathan Lane thing again), the Queen continues to live it up, throwing parties at which her guests must dress like elks, rabbits and walruses and throwing fits whenever the world does not bow to her will.

The major complication in the Queen’s quest for supreme dominance is her 18-year-old stepdaughter, Snow White (Lily Collins), who has turned into a rival for the throne and, more importantly to the vicious and vain Queen, romantic competition as well. Both women have their eyes on the visiting Prince Alcott (an entertainingly self-effacing Arnie Hammer) from the wealthy land of Valencia.

“Mirror” does find room for the seven dwarfs, although their Three Stooges-style slapstick isn’t as funny as the sight of them bounding through a wintry forest on stilts made from, of all things, outstretched accordions.

If the comedy sometimes lacks punch, the movie is never short on stylishness. Director Tarsem Singh (“Immortals,” “The Cell”) and his production staff dish out eye-poppingly ornate costumes and suitably fanciful imagery, such as the Queen passing through a portal in her magic mirror to confer with an eternally youthful vision of herself, or the inclusion of an imaginatively constructed menace known only as The Beast, a Jabberwock-ish creation that has a wolf’s head, an eagle’s wings, a moose’s antlers and a boa constrictor’s sinuous body. The film also makes a subtle stab at satire with its messages about over-taxation to support the excesses of the ruling class and the Queen’s banishing of “undesirables” into the outskirts of town.

While Collins is paper-doll pretty in an early-1950s Audrey Hepburn way and sometimes shows a flash or two of feistiness, she’s overshadowed by Hammer, who finds an appealingly playful angle on the standard hunky hero role. Roberts proves to be a very good sport when it comes to being bad, even undergoing a “pain is beauty” makeover that includes being slathered in bird droppings, covered in maggots, nibbled by fish and doused with muck.

“This is my story — not hers,” the Queen declares, and she’s right: In this version of “Snow White,” there's no question that the Queen rules.