With so many films these days about sorcery and magical lands, it is easy for those that are not part of an established franchise (like "Harry Potter" or "The Chronicles of Narnia") to become lost in the mix. Such was the case with "Stardust," an adrenaline-fueled fairy tale with star power to burn that went way over budget only to fizzle at the box office. It might have been the rather generic title that done it in, but for whatever reason, "Stardust" came and went without much attention. Taking a look at it now on DVD, there can be some pretty good arguments made both for and against its failure, but it looks as though audiences missed out on something that should have been at least a fun summer diversion.
Set some time in the late 19th century, "Stardust" follows a young shop boy named Tristan (Charlie Cox) from the small English village of Wall, so named for a great wall that purportedly separates the village from an enchanted fairyland into which no one is allowed. With dreams of wooing the beautiful Victoria (Sienna Miller), Tristan promises to bring her a falling star on her birthday. This, however, means venturing beyond the wall and discovering the magical kingdom of Stormhold, where he finds the fallen star in the shape of a young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). Together, Tristan and Yvaine trek back home, but their journey is impeded by Lamia, an aging witch who needs the heart of a star to reclaim her youth and beauty (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Meanwhile, the dying king of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole) leaves his kingdom to one male heir. The problem is that he has four remaining sons, three having already been murdered in their own game to determine who will remain standing and inherent the kingdom. Only the one who can find his father's medallion will be able to rule the land, and the remaining brothers set out to find it. By coincidence, it is Yvaine who has managed to find it and now wears it around her neck, having no idea where it came from or of the lengths to which the princes are willing to go in order to find it. After three princes die, the last one, Septimus (Mark Strong), learns that Yvaine has the medallion, and he too goes in search of her.
This film is the surprising sophomore directorial effort from Matthew Vaughn, whose first film was the brutally violent crime story "Layer Cake" (2004). "Stardust" was adapted from a novel by Neil Gaiman and effectively creates a fantastical, fairy-tale world filled with wonder and imagination. Vaughn has crafted a handsome production that, while not in the same league as "The Lord of the Rings," is at least, visually, on par with "The Chronicles of Narnia" and other recent fantasy films. In the DVD featurette, Vaughn says that he limited his use of computer graphics only to effects that absolutely could not be done in camera or were too expensive to physically manufacture. That is not an observation I would be inclined to make, as there is CGI galore, but the best imagery in the film is that which is free of computer graphics. The visuals are often breathtaking, and the production design is beautifully intricate and ornate.
One element that really helps ground the film is the refreshingly down-to-earth chemistry between Claire Danes and relative newcomer Charlie Cox. They are both attractive, but approachable and relatable at the same time. There is a general goofiness about them that works well with the film's comical overtones, and they are funny without winking at the camera. Danes in particular really makes this film her own, which is no small feat considering the supporting cast that includes, among others, Michelle Pfeiffer, Peter O'Toole, Ricky Gervais, Rupert Everett, and David Kelly. She is so freshly appealing, bringing a contemporary spunk to her character while retaining just the right amount of delicacy.
After a five-year absence from the screen, Michelle Pfeiffer returned this year to play villainesses in both this movie and "Hairspray," and I must say she certainly lives it up. Still very sexy, she knows how to make being bad look so good. She spends a good portion of the film under layers of hag makeup, but she is clearly having fun with this role, and her enthusiasm is infectious.
Where Vaughn goes almost fatally wrong is in his attempt to capture the sort of swashbuckling excitement and witty burlesque of "The Princess Bride." Having never read Gaiman's novel, I don't know if this mixture of traditional fairy storytelling and outright comedy originated with his work, but the film never reaches a good balance between the two. The comedy, which relies heavily on sexual innuendo, just fails to match the sophistication of the more straightforward parts of the story. The film becomes downright embarrassing with the stunt casting of Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare, a gay pirate—yes, a gay pirate—who offers assistance to Tristan and Yvaine. It's not the fact that he is gay that is the problem, but rather that De Niro plays him as a flamboyant, limp-wristed caricature that would have been more at home on "Will & Grace." I was actually shocked that such a gross stereotype found its way into this story for seemingly no reason at all. De Niro himself seems awkwardly uncomfortable in the role, allowing far too much of himself to come through and clashing mightily with the rest of the generally great cast.
It is difficult to tell who the primary audience for this film is meant to be. The comedy frequently comes across as too juvenile for most adults, but the surprisingly heavy violence makes this unsuitable for the preteen crowd. Parents should definitely take heed of the PG-13 rating. Several characters are killed throughout the film in often gruesome manner. While the violence is not explicitly bloody or gory, it is strong enough to warrant some caution. Perhaps because of his previous work on "Layer Cake," Vaughn handles the violent scenes extremely well, producing some well-paced sword fights throughout that recall the classic swashbucklers. There is also a terrific final battle that, more than any other scene, utilizes comedy to enhance the action rather than distract from it with thrilling results.
"Stardust" is brought to DVD in an anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer. The image is pristine from start to finish, without a hint of dirt or grain. Black levels are decent, and contrast looks good. At times, colors pop brilliantly, while at others, the palette seems oddly muted and desaturated. The transfer is also a bit soft throughout. In spite of these flaws, however, the picture quality is generally pleasing, if not overwhelming.
On the other hand, the audio is given a much stronger presentation. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the sound effects and music thunder furiously around the speakers, creating quite the atmospheric experience. Dialogue is clear and discernable, never overpowered by the loud sound effects or sweeping music. The level of clarity in the action scenes is impressive, conveying the sound of every clanking sword perfectly. This definitely adds to the overall viewing pleasure.
Starting off the special features, Paramount has presented "Good Omens: The Making of Stardust," a roughly 30-minute featurette. Interviews with Matthew Vaughn, Neil Gaiman, Danes and Cox, and assorted crew members highlight the adaptation and production. A healthy amount of behind-the-scenes footage provides good perspective on the construction of the elaborate sets. While not a definitive production diary, this was longer than I expected it to be and is certainly worth watching.
Following this are five deleted and extended scenes. An amusing, five-and-a-half-minute blooper real is next, followed by a theatrical trailer and some previews for other Paramount titles.
While not the pinnacle of Hollywood fantasy, "Stardust" is an admirable attempt to revive the old swashbuckling adventure and a well-told fairy tale. The easygoing performances of its two leads are by far its greatest selling point. Though the comical aspects of the film interfere with what is otherwise a generally good story, I cannot complain about them too much. All in all, this was not a bad way to spend two hours. "Stardust" is, ultimately, a pretty entertaining movie. It's just not the great film that it so easily could have been.