Fairy tales are fun, and so are parodies of fairy tales, and so, in their dark way, are Grimm’s fairy tales. Stardust is a movie that’s clearly in love with all the different kinds of fairy tales, but it wants to be all of them at once, and that’s a problem. The story begins in a tiny English village called Wall, named in honor of the cobblestone wall that separates the humans from a “supernatural parallel universe” (as the production notes call it) next door. A frail old man has guarded the wall’s only vulnerable spot – a small crumbled area – for decades, making sure no one gets in or out.
One person who does manage to escape is Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox), a store clerk in love with the town beauty, Victoria (Sienna Miller). She uses him, manipulates him, and leads him on when, in reality, she has no intention of leaving her snooty boyfriend. Her attitude changes when Tristan promises to leave Wall and retrieve a fallen star for her. Recognizing that this is something her boyfriend could (or would) never do, she gives Tristan one week to bring the star back to her. If he succeeds, she will marry him. It is one of the film’s unexplained mysteries that he would go to such great lengths for a woman who visibly treats him with such disdain, but there you go.
Through a series of events far too complicated to go into here, Tristan does indeed find the star, only to discover that it has taken the form of a young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes). She’s surprisingly willing to accompany Tristan back to Wall. However, others want her too. Michelle Pfeiffer plays Lamia, an aging witch who wants to use the star to regain her youth and beauty. Then there are the sons of the ailing King (Peter O’Toole), who have been told that whomever retrieves the star will become the formal heir to the throne. Tristan tries to keep Yvaine out of the clutches of these various villains. Along the way, he gets an assist from a gay pirate (Robert DeNiro), and he also meets up with a morally questionable trader (Ricky Gervais). If you guessed that perhaps Tristan and Yvaine fall in love somewhere along the way, then you definitely know a thing or two about fairy tales.
Stardust has some things working in its favor, first among them being a sense of inventiveness. The movie is based on a comic book series by Neil Gaiman, who also created the acclaimed comic “Sandman.” Like any good comic book, Stardust has elements of great imagination and wit. My favorite is a recurring bit about the King’s dead sons, who appear as spirits to watch their living brothers fight for the crown. We don’t know much about their lives, but their manners of death are physically apparent. Their number is added to in the course of the story, and it’s darkly funny to watch one of the King’s sons die, then pop up immediately alongside his late siblings. I thought the idea of the wall was interesting too; building something like that to separate humans from a supernatural world is a classic comic book/fantasy inspiration.
Some of the casting is also good. Michelle Pfeiffer continues the career comeback that she launched with Hairspray. She perfectly captures all the seething resentment Lamia feels over the aging process. Watching her vanity take over and drive her to evil is akin to watching Cruella de Ville rage over puppies. I also liked the great Ricky Gervais, who only has a few minutes of screen time yet still manages to light the film up. The British comedian (who created and starred in the original version of “The Office” as well as HBO’s hilarious series “Extras”) earned, for me, the biggest laughs in the movie. As for Robert DeNiro as the gay pirate…well, he’s never played a role like that before.
My big problem with Stardust is that it never decides what kind of fairy tale it wants to be, and therefore it doesn’t do any of them particularly well. For instance, the plot with Tristan and Yvaine is pretty standard fairy tale stuff. Hero makes a journey, rescues a young woman, falls in love with her in a magical setting. This is played more or less straight. Then another part of the film wants to be a parody of fairy tales, along the lines of The Princess Bride or Shrek. There are some wink-wink, nod-nod jokes scattered throughout, and did I mention that Robert DeNiro plays a gay pirate? Yes, some of this material is funny, but it doesn’t quite mesh with the straightforward stuff, and it clashes badly with the side of Stardust that wants to be like a Grimm’s fairy tale. The actions of the witch are really quite evil; she slaughters animals and humans alike. Some of the violence, while bloodless, is pretty shocking when pressed up against the more comedic moments. The King’s sons are murderers as well (there’s a running subplot about them trying to off one another in their fight to capture the star).
For two hours, the picture bounces from one style to the next, never settling in on a specific tone. It almost feels as though we’re watching three separate films that have been mashed together somehow. This approach renders the plot unsatisfying. It’s hard to believe in, much less care about, the central Tristan/Yvaine romance because the movie never creates an atmosphere where their developing love feels plausible. At times, I felt my eyes glazing over as I watched Stardust. Sure, it looks great and has some eye-popping visual effects, but the fact that it fundamentally has no core made it feel unnecessarily dull. A fairy tale ought to enchant; this one just washes over you, painlessly but unmemorably.
The truth is, whatever kind of fairy tale you prefer, you can find a better cinematic example of it elsewhere. Stardust, directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake), probably works better as a comic book. Someone once said that the magic of a comic book lies in the spaces between the panels – the gaps that your imagination has to fill in to keep the story progressing and make it plausible. Movies are different. They need to stimulate your imagination, but not make you essentially do all the work. I can’t help but feel that, for all its visual razzle-dazzle, Stardust would prefer that you imagine the best parts for it. If the picture had even an inkling of what it really wanted to be, it wouldn’t need to do that.
( out of four)
Stardust is rated PG-13 for some fantasy violence and risque humor. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Stardust
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