Stardust (2007) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, sensuality, and scary images
Running time: 128 min.
Cast: Charlie Cox, Michalle Pfeiffer, Claire Danes, Robert De Niro, Kate Magowan, Mark Strong, Jason Flemyng, Sienna Miller, Melanie Hill, Peter O'Toole, Ricky Gervais, Henry Cavill, Rupert Everett, Dexter Fletcher, Ian McKellen (narrator)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn (based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess)
Set 150 years ago, Tristan (Casanova, The Merchant of Venice) is a young man in the small English town of Wall who aims to win the hand of the local beauty (Miller, Alfie) in exchange for a star that has fallen on the other side of a wall to a realm forbidden for any to venture. He manages to make his way to the other side, but finds that the star is actually a young woman named Yvaine (Danes, The Family Stone) -- human or not, he aims to bring her back to Wall. The area turns out to be a magical land called Stronghold, full of whimsical delights and malicious forces, including a trio of witches, headed by the scheming Larnia (Pfeiffer, I Could Never Be Your Woman), who aim to tear out Yvaine's heart in exchange for youth and beauty. Also in the chase are Stronghold's heirs to the throne, who have traditionally only ascended to power when all his/her siblings have been vanquished. Also part of the ascension, they must obtain the precious ruby that has found it's way into Yvaine's possession, as decreed by the father (O'Toole, Ratatouille).
Stardust plays like The Princess Bride as if directed by Terry GIlliam (a la The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Time Bandits) on a more subdued day, with eccentric characters and a meandering storyline that entertain more through visual confections, artistic flourishes, and deep character quirks galore that it does through the gist of the story at its core. I'm of two minds about the film, liking the energy and ingenuity behind many of the characters and their peculiar little world, but the story itself, during the few times it sticks to trying to tell it, is predictable and barely cohesive. Nevertheless, I can't say that I wasn't entertained, despite some lulls, and once it's all said and done, the entertainment value is certainly there for those just looking for a world of fantasy and escapism.
The film itself is based on the Neil Gaiman penned and Charles Vess illustrated graphic novel of the same name (the book was re-released as a straightforward novella sans illustrations later), and if you're a devotee of Gaiman's, it's a certainty that you'll be delighted that one of his stories actually has been done with some integrity, unless you are one who grovels that the film doesn't come close to capturing the book. Like the Harry Potter films, Matthew Vaughn's (Layer Cake) treatment does spend an inordinate amount of time on secondary characters and superfluous side stories, to the point where it's hard to discern there being a main story for long durations. Luckily, these indulgences are entertaining enough on their own to forgive the excess, and unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the conflicts between characters don't drag on mercilessly to the point of outright tedium.
Vaughn's direction is a mixed bag, as he is quite good at the technical side of directing, but he is not the kind of visionary that could make such a capricious fairy tale truly something special. Perhaps Jim Henson, when he was alive, or the aforementioned Terry GIlliam, back when studios trusted him with a budget over $20 million, could have made something to last for generations, but as presented here, it's one that will only hit home for genre fans. Luckily, fantasy films are red hot, and it's better than other wildly popular, but inherently mediocre efforts like Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, and all of their brethren.
Lively performances abound, with some very choice roles for Pfeiffer (perhaps even more alluring in her late 40s than ever) and a memorable supporting role for Robert De Niro (Hide and Seek, Meet the Fockers) as a ruthless pirate that has more than one quirk up his sleeve -- in fact, he has a closet full of surprises. If nothing else, the film is cast rather well, and though not all of these stars merit getting much screen time, they give their small parts the necessary oomph to amuse just enough to forgive their unnecessary inclusion.
With just a smidge more overriding themes and a more focused treatment of Gaiman's work, we'd have a modern-day fairy-tale classic to put right along side Shrek, Labyrinth and The Princess Bride. It certainly has spots where it breaks out of its half-realized side jaunts to deliver worthy scenes of amusement or pith, but for the most part, it plays like a series of barely-connected romantic fantasy bits that don't quite congeal into that truly satisfying and enriching capturing of the spirit of love and infinite possibilities that it seeks to be. Nevertheless, while it may not pay off in the big things, the little things still add up to quite a bit on their own.
©2007 Vince Leo