December 07, 2007

Stardust (2007)

In the late 80s, a new generation of writers changed the American comic book industry forever with the complex mature-themed nature of their stories, effectively transforming what was considered an unsophisticated literary genre into a well respected art form. Among that group of storytellers was Neil Gaiman, a young British writer who decided to try his luck at comic books convinced by his friend, Alan Moore (writer of the classic graphic novel "Watchmen"). After landing a job at DC comics, Gaiman started the series that would make him famous, "The Sandman", the comic book where his taste for fantasy and great imagination found no limits. Years later Gaiman returned to prose, and so he decided to make a fantasy novel in the style of classic English fantasy, the one that used to be done before the days of Tolkien and Lewis' high fantasy. And the result was "Stardust".

"Stardust" is the story of Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), a humble young man hopelessly in love with the most beautiful girl in his town, Victoria (Sienna Miller). To his misfortune, she has accepted a marriage proposal by Humphrey (Henry Cavill), so he decides to give her an ultimate proof of his love: a star has fallen from the sky, so he tells Victoria that he'll bring it to her, even if that means to cross the legendary wall that separates their town from the mysterious forest. What Tristan doesn't know, is that the wall exists to separate his world from the magical realm of Stormhold, and that he is not the only one looking for the star, as a powerful witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) wants it to be young again, and two princes (Mark Strong and Jason Flemyng) need it to claim the throne of Stormhold. However, the biggest surprise will be the star's identity.

Screenwriter Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn make a nice adaptation of Gaiman's novel that keeps the story's core points, although they toned down the darkness of the novel quite a bit. This is not really a bad thing, as in the process, Goldman and Vaughn remained faithful to the novel's spirit and the result is a movie that joyfully plays with witty comedy, fantasy and romance, and yet it's still completely in tone with the fantasy stories that inspired Gaiman's book. In essence, "Stardust" is what could be called "a fairy tale for grown-ups", as it's fantasy is whimsical, clever and very imaginative, but with a greater emphasis on the characters and their development than in any epic scale adventure. And this is where "Stardust" has its strongest point: the character development is remarkably well done, and even those characters with very short screen time are unforgettable.

While "Stardust" is a very different (and more ambitious) film to his previous movie, 2004's "Layer Cake", director Matthew Vaughn manages to make it work by concentrating in the story and letting everything else grow from there. Since comedy and romance are now the main ingredients of the film, Vaughn focuses the film on his characters, specially in the relationship the main couple. Still, while "Stardust" lacks the epic scope of high fantasy films, Vaughn manages to make his story a very beautiful looking one, giving life to the kingdom of Stormhold with a beautiful Victorian style and good care for details. Sadly, a fantasy film like "Stardust" fantasy films tends to relay a lot on special effects, and budgetary reasons prevented Vaughn from making truly stunning visuals, however, the ones that appear are good enough to make Stormhold come to life.

As written above, "Stardust" is a fantasy movie where the characters have more importance than the story, so a good cast is needed to make it work. Well, the movie is benefited by a great supporting cast that includes Ricky Gervais, Peter O'Toole, a truly unforgettable Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in what is definitely her great return to mainstream movies. Sadly, the main couple, Charlie Cox and Claire Danes, get easily overshadowed by the supporting cast's performances, specially Cox, whom despite having great natural charm still feels a bit weak in the lead role. Danes fares a bit better, as there are scenes that truly allow her to shine in her character. By the way, I must say that while his role is kind of limited, Mark Strong is excellent as prince Septimus, and delivers some of the best swashbuckling scenes of the last times.

Being an accomplished mix of fantasy, romance and comedy in the classic style of fairy tales, "Stardust"'s worst enemy may be it's very consciously attempt to pay homage to that kind of fantasy tales. In a time where adaptations of high fantasy books like "The Lord of the Rings" or "The Chronicles of Narnia" are popular, it would be easy to expect "Stardust" to follow that pattern, but it doesn't and it may turn off people expecting epic battles instead of romantic swashbuckling. If there's a recent movie that bears any similitude to this film, that one would be "The Princess Bride" (also based on a novel), although Reiner's film is certainly grounded even more on the comedy genre. There are details in the lead actors' performances, and the already mentioned troubles in some visual effects, but these are minor quibbles that don't really hurt the film.

While not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, "Stardust" is still one of the best fantasy films of the last years, and most definitely a worthy adaptation of Gaiman's novel. Whimsical and lighthearted but also witty and clever at the same time, "Stardust" proves that not every fantasy film must be about saving the world from an evil dark lord, and that romantic comedies must not be unnecessarily sappy affairs. This excellent tale of fantasy and romance is great for fans of both genres. Comparisons to "The Princess Bride" can't be avoided, but this film is almost as good as that fantasy classic.


Buy "Stardust" (2007)


Marin Mandir said...

8 out of 10 - so you give it a high rating. I didn't see the film yet - the trailers didn't seem promising, more like some junction between kitsch and parody - but now that you mention it and give it such praise, maybe I was wrong to judge it so soon. I'll probably check it out when it gets on DVD. Nice review.

Karl Hungus said...

Good review. ;)