STARDUST: A Delirious Hodgepodge of Delights!

The last time we got an honest to goodness fairy tale film – one that didn’t try to be something more [or anything less], the result was The Princess Bride. Happily, Stardust has the same kind of wonderful whimsy – that same kind of dark undercurrent. And, oh, yes… it’s also about True Love…

Some writers write one classic and their lesser-known works disappear over the years. One such writer was Herman Melville, the writer of Moby Dick. He also wrote another novel – a novel of epic adventure that he entitled ODTAA. When he was asked what on Earth the title meant, he replied “One Darn Thing After Another.” In many ways, Neil Gaiman’s novel, Stardust, is exactly that – and, as a result, so is the movie.

Eighteen years after Dunstan Thorne [Ben Barnes] snuck the guard of the wall that separates the town of Wall from the Kingdom of Stormhold for a brief adventure, his son Tristan [Charlie Cox] promises Victoria [Sienna Miller] that he’ll cross the wall and retrieve a fallen star to prove his love for her.

It’s a common enough plot – setting out on a quest to win a lady’s heart – but Stardust starts with that basic idea and then promptly goes awry in all the right ways. Where a standard quest fantasy might turn right, it turns left [the king of Stormhold is decided by its princes killing each other until one is left standing and a new king is declared – and the ghost of the deceased must hang around until that new king is declared]; where a standard fantasy might duck, it leaps [lightning-catching air pirates who never let on that they know their captain’s darkest secret].

Unlike most romantic fantasies [excepting, oddly enough, The Princess Bride], the hero [that would be Tristan] is completely wrong about his One True Love – while she isn’t even a terrestrial personage [no elf, witch, or human here]. Yvaine [Claire Danes], it turns out, is a star – a twinkle in the night sky star – who has fallen to Earth!

The villain of the piece is Lamia [Michelle Pfeiffer], an ancient witch who, with her sisters Empusa [Sarah Alexander] and Mormo [Joanna Scanlan], requires the heart of a star to return to them their youth.

Somewhere in between the two are the three surviving [at least so far] princes of Stronghold: Septimus [Mark Strong], Tertius [Mark Heap] and Secundus [Rupert Everett] – at least temporarily [remember? They have to survive assassination attempts by each other to become king].

Stardust has swordfights, evil witches, magic spells, ships that sail the skies with dirigibles instead of sails, a unicorn, lots of chases, and – most importantly – a lot of heart. Don’t look here for a humdrum, simple, three-act tale. There are three tales here, overlap though they may: there’s the tale of three sisters who need to do something heinous to regain their lost youth; there’s the story of the princes and their efforts to become the next kin, and there’s the story of Tristan who only wants to impress the woman he loves… thinks he loves… whatever…

The screenplay [by director Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman] does a remarkable job of achieving Gaiman’s tone and hewing to the essence of his novel’s heart. There are, of course, changes [if the movie were to follow the book, it would be twenty minutes to half an hour before Tristan was even born!]. The changes work in the context of film and the result is a two-hour experience that doesn’t feel nearly that long – we get so wrapped up in its events, it’s like an eye-blink and it’s over!

Full credit to Danes, whom I haven’t much cared for ‘til now, for making Yvaine work. I mean, really, how does one play a star? Of all the characters, Danes may have gotten the toughest to play – Yvaine is cranky a lot which tends to draw attention away from moments when she is wrapped up in wonder at the discovery of what love is – from personal experience, no less. When a key misunderstanding takes place [as it often does in these kinds of stories], Danes really makes Yvaine’s pain palpable.

Pfeiffer, on the other hand, may not the toughest of roles – villains are villains, after all [at least in fairy tales] – but she brings a sensuous verve to Lamia that is a delight. This is a villain who revels in being a villain – and is not misunderstood at all!

Even the smaller roles are given an extra zing. David Kelly [Waking Ned] is terrific as the old man who guards the crack in the wall between Wall and Stormhold, and Ricky Gervais plays a dodgy buyer and seller of peculiar goods [like lightning] as a souped up used car salesman on bad acid.

Then there’s that pirate, Captain Shakespeare [Robert DeNiro]. I’m sure there will those who think he’s overdoing it as the fearsome pirate who’s really a “wopsie” [watch closely and you’ll get it when you see the movie]. It’s Shakespeare who provides Tristan with a few of the basic skills he needs if he wants to emerge from Stormhold alive – fencing and the ability to see what’s in front of his nose.

Unfortunately, there is one glaring problem with Stardust. The music, which would be fabulous otherwise, is frequently cranked up way too loud. It’s as if Vaughn didn’t have enough faith in his direction and had to hang a glowing neon sign over several crucial moments. That the film still works well with ham-fisted emphasis in the music is a testament to his skills as a director. I just wish he hadn’t felt the need to dial up those key scenes to eleven – that lack of restraint costs the film a full grade.
Still, like Melville’s novel [and Gaiman’s], Stardust is one darn thing after another – and I mean that in the best of ways.

[b]Final Grade: B+[/b]

Updated: September 7, 2007 — 3:26 am