Stardust (United Kingdom/United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Stardust, based on the acclaimed illustrated novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, takes viewers to the mystical land of Stormhold, where stars walk, ships fly, and magic is real. A fantasy in the tradition of The Princess Bride, Stardust leavens its mature fairy tale with elements of romance, horror, and comedy. There's less whimsy to be found here than in The Princess Bride, but the film is likely to appeal to the same group of older children and adults that appreciated Rob Reiner's classic.

Stardust adopts its basic storyline from Gaiman and Vess' beautifully rendered 1997 novel. Much has been changed and condensed but the essentials remain the same. Tristan (Charlie Cox) is a young Englishman who longs to win the hand of Victoria (Sienna Miller). She makes a bargain with him: If he will bring her a shooting star fallen to Earth, she will reject her other suitor in his favor. Tristan agrees and begins a journey across a mysterious wall and into the realm of Stormhold, where magic holds sway. The fallen star, Yvaine (Claire Danes), walks and talks and isn't happy about having been knocked out of the firmament. Tristan promises to find her a way home if she will accompany him to Victoria. But others are after Yvaine as well. The witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) wants to cut out her heart in order to gain eternal life and youth. And Septimus (Mark Strong), the heir to Stormhold's throne, needs a necklace Yvaine wears to finalize his coronation. Friends are few and far between, but a reliable one is found in the person of the cross-dressing Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), who commands a lightning-collecting airship. (The segment on his ship seems more like Time Bandits than The Princess Bride.)

Although the film may appear, at first glance, to be a family film, it contains enough content to make it a dubious choice for young children. There are sequences of mild horror, in which characters die, sometimes gruesomely. Some of the humor is also designed with an older audience in mind, such as the cross-dressing and attitude of gay Captain Shakespeare. In the end, this is very much a fairy tale in the truest sense of the term, with plenty of the darkness left in that is often expunged from such stories.

As a fantasy romance, Stardust contains all the requisite elements: true love, mystical creatures, magic-wielding harridans, shape changing animals, and a quest. The comedy is uneven. Some of it, such as the bickering between the spectral brothers of Septimus or the antics of a billygoat-turned-human, is worthy of a laugh or two. Other elements, such as Captain Shakespeare's over-the-top frolicking and dancing in women's clothing, seems like it belongs in another movie (and, in fact, was not part of the book). The darker elements are nicely modulated. They're not graphic but they convey the point.

The set design successfully replicates the look and feel of the book. Combined with Ian McKellan's smooth narration, Stardust transports viewers to another world. The special effects aren't on the level of The Lord of the Rings, but their application is sufficient to tell the story. Director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) put a lot of effort into making Stormhold into a traditional fantasy setting. (This, incidentally, is the movie that Vaughn elected to do instead of the third X-Men tale.)

The cast is impressive, and includes many luminaries from both sides of the Atlantic. The leads are played by a wonderful Claire Danes (using an effective British accent), who shines as a star, and an understated and relatively unknown Charlie Cox. High-profile Americans include Robert De Niro, who seems to be enjoying himself immensely, and Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays against character as an out-and-out villain. The U.K. contributes Rupert Everett, Sienna Miller, and Ricky Gervais in supporting roles. Then there's Peter O'Toole, whose entire part consists of lying in bed dying. Those who have seen Venus will get the joke, although I wonder whether Vaughn was in on it.

The success of the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies have elevated fantasy from a niche film genre into the mainstream, but Stardust is a little of a throwback to how fantasy movies used to be before the emergence of the multi-part epic serials. It's a lighter, simpler sort of tale. Despite just cracking the two-hour barrier, the film is paced and edited in such a way that the story always seems to be moving forward and there is no sense of drag or a letdown. Stardust isn't as visionary an accomplishment as this year's bloody fantasy 300, but it nevertheless honors the illustrations that inspired its appearance. It's a kinder and gentler achievement but, in the midst of overbudgeted, over-hyped sequels, it's a fresh and welcome entertainment.

Stardust (United Kingdom/United States, 2007)

Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 2007-08-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1