Get ready for a lot more movies like Stardust. This whimsical fantasy, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to broad, big-budget, literature-based fantasy epics looking to capitalize on the success of the Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter franchises. It’s not really fair to lump Gaiman in with the opportunists who’ve come out of the woodwork following the successes of those films, but when director Matthew Vaughn peppers Stardust with the exact same sweeping helicopter shots of characters riding on horseback over majestic mountains on their way to fulfilling some mystical quest that became the trademark of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, he’s practically begging for the comparison.
Stardust is much less dark than the Rings movies, less allegorical than the Narnia series and less angsty than Harry Potter, and it draws on a tradition of storytelling that goes back much, much further than a few recent effects-driven movies. It’s a fairy tale, gussied up with those sweeping shots and distracting star turns and fancy effects, and thus it’s only intermittently successful, and has a scattered, rushed feel to it. There’s a simple moral about true love and following your heart, which is muddied by the grandiose tone; unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a small fantasy film, but this story would have benefited from a more modest telling.
It starts out promisingly enough with narration from the great Ian McKellen, exactly the sort of person you’d want telling you a fairy tale (and, not coincidentally, one of the most recognizable stars of the Lord of the Rings films, even in voice only). McKellen tells of the English village Wall, which is aptly named as it borders a wall beyond which is the mystical realm Stormhold. Residents are forbidden to cross this wall, but an enterprising young man does so anyway, and while on the other side he has a dalliance with a young woman who claims to be an imprisoned princess.
Cut to 18 years later, and the product of their union is now the awkward young man Tristan (Charlie Cox), your standard peasant boy who is secretly of royal blood. Promising the haughty object of his affection that he will catch her a fallen star, he too jumps the wall and tracks down said star, which in this realm takes the convenient form of a beautiful woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). Others are after Yvaine, too, including a decrepit old witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) made temporarily young again, and the squabbling sons of Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O’Toole), who must capture Yvaine’s necklace to inherit the kingdom.
Tristan and Yvaine’s journey back to Wall takes numerous detours, the most notable of which features an unbelievably miscast Robert De Niro as a gay, crossdressing cloud pirate. De Niro’s scenes, in which he talks in a fey voice and prances around in petticoats, are nearly unbearable, like the tough-guy actor decided he needed to channel the spirit of latter-day Robin Williams. Even Meet the Fockers was more amusing.
There are just too many ill-advised digressions like that for Stardust to completely work, although Pfeiffer is deliciously evil (between this film and Hairspray, she’s got a villainous comeback brewing), and some of the dialogue captures the charm of Gaiman’s writing. Danes and Cox have no chemistry, and the actress, so good at playing cold and intellectual, cannot pull off the wide-eyed innocent (or the British accent). Like many elements of the movie, her performance feels just a shade off; while Stardust gets the overall fantasy tone right, it stumbles in the details.
Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer
Directed by Matthew Vaughn