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Stardust (2007)

DIRECTOR: Matthew Vaughn

CAST: Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Mark Strong, Jason Flemyng, Sienna Miller

REVIEW:

An adaptation of the acclaimed illustrated fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, Stardust isn’t the equal of, say, The Princess Bride, but it’s an entry in the fantasy genre that’s (mostly) appropriate for older children while also entertaining adults, and blends dashes of romance, adventure, comedy, and horror into an enjoyable confection.

As explained by Ian McKellen’s properly authoritative narration, Stardust opens at the Wall, a border between England and the magical fantasy kingdom of Stormhold. A young Englishman named Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox), the son of the only man (Ben Barnes, later Nathaniel Parker) to breach the wall and sire Tristan after a one-night stand with a woman he met on the other side, determines to make his own excursion into Stormhold to fetch back a fallen star to impress his crush Victoria (Sienna Miller). Except there’s one problem; the star has fallen to earth in the form of a beautiful young woman called Yvaine (Claire Danes), who’s not impressed with the fumbling Tristan and not happy with his plans to drag her back across the Wall to impress Victoria. And there are other, more dangerous interested parties with more nefarious plans for Yvaine, including the witch Lumia (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wants to cut out and devour her heart to restore her own youth and beauty, and the fratricidal princes of Stormhold, led by Septimus (Mark Strong), a backstabbing nest of vipers vying to get their hands on the diamond she wears around her neck which will give whoever bears it the rights to the throne. On the run from various unsavory characters, Yvaine and Tristan fall in with Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), who commands a flying pirate ship, but their journey will lead to a few revelations and realizations.

While Stardust isn’t as deft as The Princess Bride—pretty much the standard-bearer for this kind of semi-comedic fantasy romp—it mixes a lot of staple fantasy adventure ingredients like true love, magical animals (including a helpful unicorn), wicked witches, a flying ship, some swashbuckling, and a quest. Its tone isn’t as openly comical as The Princess Bride or Shrek, but there’s plenty of quirky humor sprinkled throughout, making it clear it’s not taking things too seriously. The comedy is uneven. Some of it, like the backstabbing fratricidal shenanigans of the assorted royal brothers, and the way the ghosts of their deceased siblings tag along like a sort of Greek chorus (one that keeps growing as another gets killed off), is amusing in a slightly dark and twisted sort of way, while some other bits, like a goat that doesn’t quite successfully make the transition when Lumia shapeshifts it into a human (Mark Williams) who only speaks in baaaas and jumps up on tables, is a tad overly buffoonish (some of the latter shenanigans dilute the suspense and tension in a scene where Lumia lures Yvaine into a trap). Viewers might also have mixed opinions of whether Robert De Niro’s performance—as the outwardly gruff Captain Shakespeare, who behind closed doors is a flamboyant cross-dressing homosexual—adds to the movie or is a distracting oddity. The special effects aren’t up to the level of the likes of Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, but they’re adequate to get the point across, and the set design does an effectively immersive job of replicating the look and feel of the illustrated novel (much has been changed and condensed from page to screen, but the basic gist is the same). The final showdown with Lumia is a little underwhelming in the deus ex machina way it resolves things, although prior to that it does offer a decidedly unusual swordfight. Some elements, particularly relating to the romance, are predictable; does anyone not see it coming from a mile away that the conceited Victoria is not Tristan’s “one true love”, and that the bickering pair of Tristan and Yvaine are fated to end up together? The biggest problem is that the pace is muddled and scattershot—various scenes work as vignettes, but all the pieces fit together a bit haphazardly, with thinly-explained mythology and too many characters scurrying around—but the movie generates enough charm to make it flow together pleasantly and for us not to mind tagging along with Yvaine and Tristan on their adventure.

The ensemble is well-chosen. Claire Danes, who’s bland in some roles, here is suitably luminous and also injects Yvaine with a dash of feistiness, and is well-matched with virtual unknown Charlie Cox, who imbues Tristan with enough fumbling earnestness to make him a likable protagonist. They make a cute couple, even if their eventual romance is predictable a mile away. The two older “names” in the cast, Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer, both seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, with De Niro gamely playing against his “tough guy” image as the flamboyant cross-dressing Captain Shakespeare, and Pfeiffer (spending some of her screentime looking like herself, and some of it under increasing amounts of makeup as a decrepit witchy hag) vamping it up with relish as a cackling wicked witch. Mark Strong, a familiar “bad guy” actor, capably provides a secondary villain as Prince Septimus. Familiar faces abound in smaller roles, including cameos by Ricky Gervais, Peter O’Toole, and Rupert Everett (who makes a dramatic entrance and then a couple minutes later takes an unceremonious swan dive out a very high window), and bit parts by the likes of Sienna Miller as Tristan’s not-so-true-love, an almost unrecognizable Henry Cavill as her snobbish beau, Jason Flemyng as another of the assorted fratricidal royal brothers, Ben Barnes and Nathaniel Parker as the young and older versions of Tristan’s father, David Kelly as the ancient—but surprisingly sprightly—wall guard, Mark Williams (Harry Potter‘s Arthur Weasley) as the aforementioned goat-man, and Ian McKellen lending his eloquent gravitas to the bookending narration.

In the end, Stardust is a bit of a mess, but it throws a bunch of staple fantasy elements into a blender, and the result is a pleasant enough concoction imbued with enough charms to be an enjoyable confection sprinkled liberally with tongue-in-cheek humor that should appeal to fans of the likes of The Princess Bride while offering material to entertain both older children and their parents.

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