Judge Kristin Munson was sorely disappointed to discover this Stardust didn't feature a single spider from Mars.
Our review of Stardust (Blu-Ray), published September 7th, 2010, is also available.
"Nothing says romance like the gift of a kidnapped, injured woman."
Stardust started out as a comic book and then became a novel before finally hitting the big screen, so you'd think all of the plot kinks would had been worked out. Neil Gaiman's original story has been extensively rewritten, usually for the better, but the adaptation still sacrifices character development for showmanship. There's never enough time with the main couple to make us root for them as people or for their love story. A lack of heart is what keeps Stardust from hitting a happily ever after home run, but it's still an enjoyable time.
Facts of the Case
Once upon time an adventurous young man crossed a gap in a wall and found himself in a fairy tale land. Eighteen years and nine months later, hopelessly besotted with village beauty Victoria (Sienna Miller, Factory Girl), his son Tristan decides to do the same. Tristan (Charlie Cox Casanova) has promised to bring Victoria back a fallen star, not knowing that the heavenly body in question is really a heavenly somebody (Claire Danes My So Called Life). He has seven days to make it home with his prize and win his lady's hand in marriage but he isn't the only one chasing the shooting star: witches are seeking her for her heart and ambitious princes need her necklace to inherit a kingdom.
On the behind the scenes featurette for Stardust, Neil Gaiman bemoans the fact that all the beautiful set details are never going to be seen by an audience. That sums up the main problem I had with the film overall: It loses the details. It's so busy trying to dazzle you with magical powers and swashbuckling action that it forgets to include all the little things that separate a good fantasy movie from a great one.
Somehow, among all the pirates and unicorns and ghostly princes, the main characters get lost. The first half of the movie splits the action in three directions and by spending so little time with the hero after he arrives in the other world, it's hard to care about his quest or his budding relationship with the celestial Yvaine. Tristan's basically swapping one criticizing blonde for another, and he tows one around on a chain for a good portion of their shared screen time. Instead of showing a growing bond between the two, the movie presumes we automatically accept it and opts for many overhead traveling shots inter cutting the three plots.
There's also a problem with pacing and conflicting messages. Tristan has exactly seven days to get his star back to the village but there's no sense of urgency or time. Even the characters only seem to remember at the tail end of the film. Once the princes and witches threads finally weave into Tristan's story, the film gallops along, but it takes nearly an hour to get there. The movie's themes are dumped on you in the dialogue and contradicted by the action. In one scene we're told it's better to be accepted for the person you are than to try to conform to other's expectations, but five minutes later we're presented with a montage of Yvaine learning to be a proper society lady and Tristan a rugged, masculine man.
What the movie does get right carries Stardust well beyond its script limitations. The cast is strong, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert DeNiro joining a large cast of Brits, and the relatively unknown Cox making Tristan a better character than the story often allows. While the main characters are stuck with standard fairy tale roles, the supporting cast is free to steal the show. The growing group of spectral princes (a group ranging from Rupert Everett to Little Britain's David Walliams) provide most of the laughs and Ricky Gervais is thankfully along for the ride, even if he is just David Brent in a frock coat and funny hat. DeNiro's pirate captain may be a mincing caricature, one swoosh shy of an offensive stereotype, but his nameless sidekick (Dexter Fletcher, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) is a scene stealer.
Where the film really excels is when putting extraordinary effort into the more ordinary elements. Yvaine's a star; she lights up. All that's really required is a halo of light and yet she sports the same spiky, twinkling effect that real stars have. Yvaine's unearthly glow is as simple and wondrous as the prince's makeup is complex and gruesome. The ghostly princes are trapped in their moment of death which means they range anywhere from having an axe sticking out of their skull to sporting torn and melted features. The sword fights are a mishmash of styles—a bit of Errol Flynn and Brotherhood of the Wolf mixed with bar-fighting—and enhanced by the fact the actors are performing most of their own fencing. People clearly cared enough to turn things that have been done and perfected into stuff that is original and fresh.
Stardust is only Matthew Vaughn's second film as a director (after 2004's Layer Cake), his first as a screenwriter, and his only big budget movie and it feels like he's sometimes overwhelmed by all the toys at his disposal. To his credit, he insisted on using as little CGI as possible, something that give the movie an edge over the creations of shiny plastic and murky shadow crowding the likes of Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean films. Most of what you see is really there and the sets are beautiful but you can't always appreciate them because of Vaughn's penchant for the bird's eye POV. There are literally so many slow, swooping helicopter shots you start to suspect the rental place was having some kind of sale. Flying over the landscape at 80 miles an hour before dropping straight down to where the next scene lives is amazing, but only the first two or three times.
The Stardust DVD offers a short blooper reel and a smattering of deleted scenes for its special features but no commentaries, which is too bad, because it would be fun to hear original author Gaiman teamed with Vaughn. Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman have confirmed recording a commentary track so Paramount is obviously saving the good stuff for a special edition six months down the road. The standard "Making of" is bolstered by Gaiman's home video footage and a better look at some of the set flourishes that never made it to film. The 5.1 Dolby Digital highlights Ilan Eshkeri's beautiful score and the anamorphic transfer showcases the complicated costume design and stunning special effects as much as the far off camera angles will allow.
With a stronger script and tighter direction Stardust could have been spectacular, but, even with Vaughn's inexperience, he still manages to turn out an above-average cinematic treat. A good cast and great effects work can't make it a genre classic but it is nice addition to your collection. It sparkles but it doesn't shine.
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