Once upon a time, stories were simply stories. People found their entertainment and instruction in fables and folktales, epic poems and bedtime yarns. Storytellers didn't worry whether their tales met the needs of viral marketing, demographic research, ancillary merchandise or synergy across media.
Recently, many big-movie fantasies have strived for the mythic quality of timeless stories and conspicuously fallen short. Part of their problem is they focus on imitating the superficial traits of earlier hit movies, in the way Eragon tried to ape Star Wars and the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels relied almost solely on famous actors and special effects. Without a solid story as a foundation, they're simply building on sand.
The comedic fantasy Stardust offers enormous pleasures by respecting the lasting traits of classic narratives. Director Matthew Vaughn recounts Stardust's fairy-tale romance without Shrek-like mockery, but with a light, big-hearted tone that beguiles audiences like a love potion.
Our story begins at a 19th-century English village called Wall, so named for its placement nearby a seemingly endless stone wall. One night, moony shop boy Tristan (Charlie Cox) sees a falling star descend beyond the wall and makes a love-struck promise to the vapid village beauty (Sienna Miller) that he'll retrieve the star for her birthday.
Such a quest offers the perfect expression of a young man's fancy, but turns out even more difficult than Tristan dreams. The wall separates the village from the magical realm of Stormhold, a place of dark magic, air pirates and fantastical creatures. When Tristan locates the star's impact crater, he discovers the heavenly body has the form of a lovely and highly assertive young woman called Yvaine (Claire Danes).
Tristan and Yvaine quickly become a mismatched, squabbling pair, inevitably attracted to each other, and their journey includes deadly complications. Three wizened witches, led by shape-shifting Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), seek to cut out Yvaine's heart to restore their powers. The young couple also becomes unwittingly involved in the succession to the throne of Stormhold, thanks to the last order of the dying king (Peter O'Toole). O'Toole's wicked leer conveys the corruption in the royal family, in which the vying princes kill each other for advancement in one of Stardust's darkly hilarious running jokes.
Vaughn previously directed the intricate English crime thriller Layer Cake and shows a similar eye for telling details, such as the two-headed pygmy pachyderm in a birdcage at a bustling marketplace. Vaughn co-wrote Layer Cake with English writer Jane Goldman, who's no relation of Hollywood's William Goldman, scripter of The Princess Bride. Nevertheless, Stardust emerges as a worthy heir to The Princess Bride, offering a similar blend of storybook archetype and sly humor.
Stardust's thrills cut a bit deeper, however, and its comedy spends less time winking at the audience, with the exception of Robert De Niro's turn as Capt. Shakespeare, a two-fisted air pirate with a secret life. De Niro veers heavily into camp, like Robin Williams at his most indulgent (although the crowd at the preview screening unquestionably adored the character).
Stardust shows warm affection for its characters, no matter how exaggerated. Tristan and Yvaine may be a stock pair of ingenue lovers, but they're never bland ones. Cox seems literally more moist-faced and spotty in his naïve early scenes, but becomes more canny and dashing as the character grows up. But he doesn't become a flawless hero, either. Before a final confrontation, we notice Tristan's hand tremble as he wields his sword. Danes charmingly captures Yvaine's otherworldly perspective and her dawning grasp of earthly femininity. The actress seems self-conscious during some of the screwball bickering, but when Danes simply relaxes into her smiles, we can see why she'd be cast as a literal star.
Unlike The Princess Bride or any Disney version of fairy tales, Stardust's romance isn't simply chaste. Sexuality definitely exists in Stormhold, and the film proves neither exploitative nor prudish about it. A prologue explains Tristan was born of his father's one-night stand on the magical side of the wall. Lamia's first act, after restoring her beauty, is to drop her dress and check herself out in a mirror (Pfeiffer's zesty performance evokes Death Becomes Her's visual puns on feminine vanity). Fortunately the film never descends to raunch, and the love-conquers-evil theme has refreshing maturity.
Stardust also captures the sensibility of writer Neil Gaiman, who penned the original book and co-produced the film. In all of Gaiman's work, but especially in his landmark comic book Sandman, he showed an innate command of apparently every kind of story in world history, without making his work ever feel like musty Ph.D. research. Stepping back from comics to focus on prose and screenplays, Gaiman co-wrote Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture animation version of Beowulf, due for release in November, and on Aug. 11, the Center for Puppetry Arts screens Gaiman's imaginative but cluttered MirrorMask from 2005.
Like Gaiman's best work, Stardust is blessed with airtight story logic, lively magical rules and perfect comic timing. The movie can fire our imagination with such words as "The fastest way to travel is by candlelight," and then turn such notions to visuals without disappointing us. Perhaps if more people show such respect for the simple virtues of storytelling, filmmakers and audiences will be more likely to live happily ever after.
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