For anyone who has grown weary of this season's many soulless special effects blowouts ("Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
," "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
" and "Transformers
"), the whimsical "Stardust" is just what the doctor ordered. A grown-up fantasy with imagination to spare and a mind to go along with it, the film has a welcome sense of humor, engrossing visuals, endearing protagonists, and a bittersweet undercurrent that is thematically rich in its ideas about immortality, the nature of love, and gaining the courage to show your true stripes despite the judgment of others.
Tristran (Charlie Cox) is a lovestruck young lad living in the rural England town of Wall, named for its stone bordering of Stormhold, a land where magic runs rampant. The citizens of Wall are forbidden to cross into Stormhold, but Tristran does just that when he promises Victoria (Sienna Miller) that he will capture a falling star and bring it back to her. If he succeeds at this task within one week, she will agree to marry him. Tristran finds the star in the form of the luminescent Yvaine (Claire Danes), and he promises that he will do what he can to return her to the sky if she will accompany him back to Wall. Their journey home is easier said than done, however. It seems that Yvaine is hot property in Stormholdher heart has the powers of giving immortality and youthfulness to whoever possesses it, and she carries a necklace with her that will name the owner of it the new kingand neither haggish witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) nor the four warring siblings vying for the royal throne are about to let Yvaine escape with her life.
Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, "Stardust" is humane, pure in its intentions, and refreshingly free of the product-placement and smarmy self-indulgence that plague many of today's visual effects-laden sci-fi and fantasy epics. Like the "Lord of the Rings
" trilogy, writer-director Matthew Vaughn (2005's "Layer Cake") and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman are passionate in their treatment of a story that is fraught with otherworldly and supernatural creations, yet serious about doing justice to its literary source material. The lead charactersamong them, hero and heroine Tristran and Yvaine, sorceress Lamia, and ship captain of the skies Shakespeare (Robert De Niro)take welcome focus over the gorgeous aesthetics, which compliment the fantastical side of the tale without overwhelming it.
It might be argued that, clocking in at over two hours, the picture could have been tightened around the edges and gotten to the point faster. Still, the plot is always moving forward and the intermittently leisure pacing works an intoxicating spell on the viewer. There is enough deaths, threats, scares and overall violence that "Stardust" will be rough sailing for younger children. Adults and kids in the double digits will be in heaven, though, in a film that is one-part fantasy, one-part thriller, one-part comedy, and one-part romance. The revolving door of genres, their transitions smooth within the narrative, helps to constantly surprise the watcher and catch him or her off-guard.
In one intense sequence, Lamia has falsely posed as the owner of an inn as she edges ever closer to snuffing out unsuspecting guest Yvaine. The taut editing and suspenseful music score expertly aid in building a sense of dread that is terrifically thrilling. As a contrast later in the movie, Robert De Niro (2005's "Hide and Seek
") appears as the unconventional Captain Shakespeare in a memorable comic performance that is as uninhibited and risky as anything the veteran actor has ever done. De Niro pulls it off, his broad portrayal not getting in the way of the earnest personal conflict his character is facing. Less successful are a Greek chorus of ghosts who follow the action and comment on it; one can accept it for what it is trying to do, but it's not particularly funny or necessary.
The honest heart at the center of "Stardust" is the romance that grows and permeates between Tristran and Yvaine. With the materialistic Victoria awaiting his return, Tristran is initially torn between his feelings for her he only thought he had, and the true love and affection he grows for Yvaine, herself more than willing to reciprocate the gesture. Their relationship is understated, sweet and deeper than expected. When Yvaine questions Tristran on why he, unlike so many others, isn't interested in stealing her heart as a way of escaping old age and death, his answer is touching and thought-provoking. What would be the point of living forever after everyone you care about is gone?
In his first lead role, Charlie Cox (2005's "Casanova") is a fresh find as Tristran, the type of protagonist worth rooting for. Nevertheless, it is Claire Danes (2007's "Evening
") who steals the film as Yvaine. Playing an actual star sounds downright impossible, but the incandescent Danes is perfect in the way she straddles the line between a young woman and something more ethereal. By the end, she has become the most human and sympathetic person on the screen.
Also warranting great praise is Michelle Pfeiffer's (2007's "Hairspray
") deviously spiteful and entertaining turn as witch Lamia. Pfeiffer, part of the time hidden under monstrous old-age make-up symbolic of her interior ugliness, is simply delicious at being bad. If there is a flaw in the writing of Lamia, it comes during a climax that provides a double-twist. The first one is unexpected in the best way, lending an air of pathos and sadness to Lamia that should have been carried through to the end. Unfortunately, the revelation that comes on the heels of this contradicts one of the film's themes and knocks her back down to two-dimensional status.
Gorgeously photographed by Ilan Eshkeri (2007's "Hannibal Rising
"), taking full use of his breathtaking UK locations in Scotland, England and Wales, "Stardust" is a late-summer treat. Tonally and in a few cases subjectively reminiscent of 1984's "The Never-Ending Story," 1987's "The Princess Bride" and 1993's "Hocus Pocus," the film nonetheless is a one-of-a-kind original. Director Matthew Vaughn offers all of the elements one expects from a fantasyi.e. action, vibrant visual effects, close calls and daring escapes, a grand scopebut then pleasingly goes one step further. In honoring Neil Gaiman's novel, "Stardust" isn't just a one-note movie with a lot of pizzazz and zero substance, but a more thoughtful motion picture that ponders many of the mysteries of life in a way that is accessible and emotionally satisfying.