A comic fantasy that skates by on its whimsy and colorful characters.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) from Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel of the same name, Stardust is a diversionary treat — a lively little pop fairytale that flits back and forth from one colorful character to another. Reminiscent, in swatches, of Willow, The Princess Bride and The NeverEnding Story, the movie stands in contrast to the cynicism, loud explosions and/or base humor of most summer fare, working best as a grab-bag of brightly colored whimsy and wonderment.
Part comedic fantasy adventure yarn, part lilting romance about awakening to the love right in front of one’s eyes, Stardust spans two worlds. In an attempt to win the heart of stuck-up Victoria (Sienna Miller), the prettiest girl in the sleepy English village of Wall, young Tristan Thorne (newcomer Charlie Cox) makes a wild-eyed promise to bring her back a star that they together see fall from the sky. Crossing through a feebly guarded hole in the ages-old barrier which rings the city and gives it its name, Tristan leaves behind his single father and provincial hometown and enters into a supernatural parallel universe known as Stormhold. There, Tristan discovers that the fallen star is not an inanimate object, but actually a spirited young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes), partially injured by her cosmic tumble.
Concurrently, Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O’Toole) bequeaths his throne to the son who can first retrieve an enchanted ruby necklace, setting off a paranoia-fueled dash. As various princes fall at one another’s hands, they join their other deceased brothers, forming a sort of ghostly Greek chorus for the story. When Yvaine comes into possession of the necklace, she and Tristan are sought both by the aforementioned scheming princes and a powerful witch, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s desperate to use the star to achieve eternal youth and beauty for her and her sisters.
Somewhat uncooperatively at first, Yvaine elopes with Tristan, heading back to Wall. With Lamia closing in on them, their travels take on the tone and speed of a series of incredible high-wire adventures, during which time they cross paths with, among others, a quirky pirate named Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), who captures and sells lightning and may not be all that he seems. Like a sure but slow-dawning sunrise, however, love eventually blossoms between the pair.
Vaughn, working with freshman screenwriter Jane Goldman, apparently changes significant portions of Gaiman’s source material, and invents other bits wholesale, though this will likely only be a sticking point for hardcore fans of the former text. The script itself, meanwhile, greatly favors tone over particulars. What differentiates Stormhold from Wall is never much explained, nor the relationship between the two cities, or certain other character bits; one either goes with the general flow of “fairytale questing” or becomes stubbornly resistant to the entire affair. Neither does the movie’s spitfire quotient really take off, though one can’t be entirely sure it’s actually supposed to. Danes, even though her eerily whitened eyebrows render her some sort of premature West Palm Beach retiree, showcases a bit of amusing crankiness as Yvaine, but the utterly affable Cox doesn’t return serve. He’s great as our wide-eyed guide within the big-picture adventure, but doesn’t really develop as a palpable romantic foil to our heroine until very late in the movie, and only then, it seems, at the insistence of circumstance.
More pleasantly distractible than enthralling, Stardust lacks either the epic-scale frosting that a more experienced genre hand (like Peter Jackson) would give it, or the skewed, hallucinatory pop vibrancy of a bolder visual stylist (like Tim Burton). Overall, though, one can’t reasonably bear ill will toward Stardust, and they certainly can’t hold a grudge, not the least of which because the movie is busy not taking itself at all that seriously. In sum, there’s much, much more right than wrong here.
The locations (including outdoor locales in Ireland and Scotland) are attractive and the production value is quite solid. And the performances are a lot of fun, almost across the board; Pfeiffer and De Niro in particular have a blast with their roles. Vaughn’s greatest skill, meanwhile, is in giving the movie a unifying light touch, and allowing the story’s own downhill momentum to pull the audience more and more into the picture. If at times Stardust frustrates because it gives off shimmering glimpses of the grander film that it perhaps could be rather than it completely is, well… that’s the story of life, right, of fanciful illusions dancing just out of reach? Stardust invites you to look at the glass as half full, laugh about it, and then find greater reward in a fairytale ending that was different than what you first planned. Check your cynicism at the door.