Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert DeNiro, Claire Danes
Matthew Vaughn‘s adaptation of Stardust, the ten-year-old fairy tale written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, takes the best of that magical adventure and shakes it up a little for movie audiences. It’s a remarkable and rare adaptation in which the essential story is preserved, and the deviations are an improvement for the cinematic presentation. It’s also a film that strikes a perfect tone between the ponderous, serious, interminable Lord of Rings films and the breeziness of The Princess Bride, which both celebrated fantasy stories while being awkwardly self-conscious about how dorky such stories are. Stardust neither takes three hours to make you really, really believe in dwarves and well-mapped dream continents, nor does it apologize, scuffing its toe in the dirt, for being an adventure and romance.
It’s the late 1800s, and a village in the English countryside sits beside an unassuming entrance to Faerie, which has magic and a more medieval cast. A foolish boy trying to woo a girl (who sees him only as a foolish boy) promises to bring her a falling star they spot plummeting down to the east—across the wall that keeps separate this world and that. That the star turns out to be personified as an understandably grumpy (but, appropriately, radiant) Claire Danes, and that there is an evil witch and murderous princes vying for a throne also after the celestial prize, provide all the complications and misadventures you could want.
The movie‘s principal fault is that it takes awhile to get up to speed. There’s a clunky opening in which a narrator grounds us in place and time and baritones something semi-comprehensible about stars and such. Then we’re in the magic-adjacent village of Wall as our adventure is conceived. There’s just something not clicking here, and it’s not clicking for a good twenty minutes. The viewer might fear that the film is going to be a flat fairy tale that never provides the kind of playful delight that makes The Princess Bride an enduring pleasure. The viewer is wrong, because around the time Danes enters the picture, everything starts to come together. Disparate story threads start to weave together around pursuit of the star, and everything—the cast, the setting, Vaughn’s crisp direction, the story’s essential charm—coheres. It’s like you’ve been listening to the orchestra sloppily warm up before suddenly bursting into a transcendent symphony.
A highlight of the film is Michelle Pfeiffer, as a wicked old crone who’ll kill the star to restore her lost youth. Sometimes one gets the sense that big stars are slumming when they make a film that can be regarded as “merely” fun, a genre piece, an adventure—something that’s not an official Oscar-baiting tear-jerker of grave social and artistic import. Not Pfeiffer, not here. Whether bent over under pounds of old-age prosthetics or beautifully restored to her own age, she’s tremendous fun to watch. Her witch is a broad, dramatic fiend, but Pfeiffer doesn’t play for ironic laughs, doesn’t chew scenery, doesn’t wink at us. She’s just delightfully spot-on, and her constant menace fuels the movie, giving it a cinematic energy to enliven (thanks to screenwriters Vaughn and Jane Goldman) the more pleasantly laconic story in Gaiman’s novel.
Robert DeNiro is a little more arch in his role as a high-flying pirate. What had been a fairly utilitarian character in the novel is fleshed out here largely for comic effect, and it is, if nothing else, a departure for DeNiro. Charlie Cox as our hero, Tristan, evolves nicely in his role, growing from small-down dork to a more heroic stature as the film unfolds. He’s fortunate to do his most important work opposite Danes, who, like Pfeiffer, is vital to keeping the film on course. She is the heart of the film, providing the measure against which Cox’s Tristan becomes a man, and the stakes to match Pfeiffer’s menace. Without her, no amount of magical transformations would’ve enlivened the movie.
(A few gems tucked into the cast: Ian McKellan narrates, and there’s Sienna Miller, Ricky Gervais, Rupert Everett and Peter O’Toole.)
Once the film coheres, the pace is quick and compelling, the special effects well-managed, and Tristan’s little trek into the countryside becomes an affecting adventure that builds to a rousing physical and emotional climax. In two bits not found in the novel, Danes provides a wonderful emotional moment while hiding with a dormouse, and Pfeiffer, along with a villainous prince, brings on the big action setpiece. If the denouement is a little too familiar, and less melancholy than Gaiman’s, by this time we’re too firmly in Vaughn’s hands to care. Stardust comes well after the burst of summer blockbusters, but looking back, it will be seen as one of the 2007′s best and most fully satisfying adventures.