The tremendously enchanting Stardust runs on a double dose of star power.
Traditional Hollywood stars are stockpiled in the cast. Michelle Pfeiffer, so villainous in Hairspray, leads a trio of selfish witch sisters. Robert De Niro captains a motley crew aboard a magical pirate ship. Peter O’Toole gets five quality minutes as the dying leader of a storybook kingdom. Sir Ian McKellen even narrates the affair.
And then there is an actual falling star, personified by Claire Danes, which beckons noble outcast Tristan Thorn (heroic Charlie Cox) on a perilous search for true love. Tristan knows a thing or two about celestial meetings. He was conceived, after all, in the back of a carnival tent during a supernatural tryst between his adventurous future father and a princess held captive by a bitter old witch.
Welcome to the realm of Stardust, a fantastic fantasy adapted from author Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name that wastes no time constructing a dense mythology overflowing with scorned princes, fiendish warlocks, airborne pirates, and the aforementioned star named Yvaine — played with an ethereal chip on her shoulder by a glowing Danes.
Matthew Vaughn directs, fresh off rejuvenating the modern gangster picture with his stylish crime saga Layer Cake (otherwise known as the movie that earned Daniel Craig the James Bond gig). Those critical of Cake argued that Vaughn cribbed his criminal elements from Snatch director Guy Ritchie; Vaughn produced Ritchie’s films before striking off on his own. That line of thinking is about to lose merit. The Stardust environment is about as far from Cake as Vaughn could get, and the director proves as adept at whimsical imagination as he was with gun-toting thuggery. His strength is storytelling, no matter the genre.
Solid editing techniques bring a great flow to Tristan’s tale, which alternates from the London village of Wall to the vast land of Stormhold. Three plots unfurl, intersecting at distinct points. Tristan promises to retrieve the star and return it to snooty Victoria (Sienna Miller), the love of his life who, inconveniently, is about to be engaged to frumpy Humphrey (Henry Cavill). Then there are the witches who want to eat the star’s pure heart, instantly restoring their rapidly deteriorating beauty. Finally there are the remaining sons of Stormhold’s deceased king (O’Toole), led by sinister Secundus (an unrecognizable Rupert Everett), who seek an amulet in Yvaine’s possession. The son who breathes life back into the locket earns Stormhold’s vacated throne.
For all its talk of sorcery and legacy, Stardust boils down to intimacy. Gaiman writes of a gentleman’s quest to win the heart of his dream girl, and Vaughn sticks close to that structure. Ilan Eshkeri’s musical score, one of the best I have heard this year, empowers the fantasy elements of Stardust and enhances the epic scope of Vaughn’s material. You’ll want to grab the nearest sword and swashbuckle at the sound of Eshkeri’s escalating musical choruses, deftly programmed by Vaughn to match the movie’s frequent action swells. Special effects enhance the fantasy story without overpowering it. Pfeiffer and De Niro have fun with their overdrawn parts, leaving focus on the charming Cox. De Niro, in particular, guards a secret up his billowy sleeve. With the flick of a wrist, the usually urbane actor goes from misplaced to courageously cast. The transformation is spectacular.
Audience members exiting the theater after our preview screening made comparisons to Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. That’s totally understandable, but slightly inaccurate. Like Reiner, Vaughn dabbles in fantasy for adults but exercises a far more macabre sense of humor. Lives are sacrificed on Tristan’s quest. The ghosts of Secundus’ brothers tag along for the adventure, providing an acerbic commentary track. The kids in our theater were thoroughly disturbed by the spell-casting witches.
Stardust provides the awe-inspiring fantasy that usually attracts saucer-eyed young ones, but doesn’t shy away from murder, dark magic, and adult jokes. It’s a breath of fresh air after months of summer blockbusters aimed squarely at male teenagers. Stardust promises storybook adventure for grownups, who require (and deserve) a little fairy dust blown their way from time to time.
The DVD includes deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a making-of featurette.
It’s not a blimp, it’s a zeppelin!