Thursday, August 9, 2007
Once upon a time, stories were simply stories. People found their entertainment and instruction in fables and folktales, epic poems and bedtime yarns. Storytellers didn’t worry whether their tales met the needs of viral marketing, demographic research, ancillary merchandise or synergy across media.
Recently, many big-movie fantasies have strived for the mythic quality of timeless stories, and fallen conspicuously short. Part of their problem is that they focus on imitating the superficial traits of earlier hit movies, in the way Eon tried to ape Star Wars and the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels relied almost solely on famous actors and special effects. Without a solid story as a foundation, they’re simply building on sand.
The comedic fantasy Stardust offers enormous pleasures by respecting the lasting traits of classic narratives. Director Matthew Vaughn recounts Stardust’s fairytale romance with a light, big-hearted tone that beguiles.
Our story begins at a 19th-century English village called Wall, so named for its placement nearby a seemingly endless stone wall. One night, moony shopboy Tristan (Charlie Cox) sees a falling star descend beyond the wall and makes a lovestruck promise to the vapid village beauty (Sienna Miller) that he’ll retrieve the star for her birthday.
The quest – a perfect expression of a young man’s fancy – turns out more difficult than Tristan dreams. The wall separates the village from the magical realm of Stormhold, a place of dark magic, air pirates and fantastical creatures. When Tristan locates the star’s impact crater, he discovers the heavenly body has the form of a lovely and highly assertive young woman called Yvaine (Claire Danes).
Tristan and Yvaine quickly become a mismatched, squabbling pair, inevitably attracted to each other. Their journey includes deadly complications. Three wizened witches, led by shape-shifting Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), seek to cut out Yvaine’s heart to restore their powers. The young couple also becomes unwittingly involved in the succession to the throne of Stormhold, thanks to the last order of the dying king (Peter O’Toole). Vying princes in the family kill each other for advancement in one of Stardust’s darkly hilarious running jokes.
Vaughn previously directed the intricate English crime thriller Layer Cake and shows a similar eye for telling details, such as the two-headed pygmy pachyderm in a birdcage at a bustling marketplace. Stardust emerges as a worthy heir to The Princess Bride, offering a similar blend of storybook archetype and sly humor.
Stardust’s thrills cut a bit deeper, however, and its comedy spends less time winking at the audience, with the exception of Robert De Niro’s turn as Capt. Shakespeare, a two-fisted air pirate with a secret life.
Tristan and Yvaine may be a stock pair of ingenue lovers, but they’re never bland ones. Cox seems literally more moist-faced and spotty in his naïve early scenes, but becomes more canny and dashing as he grows up. Danes charmingly captures Yvaine’s otherworldly perspective and her dawning grasp of earthly femininity. When she simply relaxes into her smiles, we can see why she’d be cast as a literal star.
Unlike The Princess Bride or any Disney version of fairy tales, Stardust’s romance isn’t simply chaste. Sexuality definitely exists in Stormhold, and the film proves neither exploitative nor prudish about it. A prologue explains Tristan was born of his father’s one-night stand on the magical side of the wall. Lamia’s first act, after restoring her beauty, is to drop her dress and check herself out in a mirror.
Stardust also captures the sensibility of writer Neil Gaiman, who penned the original book and co-produced the film. In all of Gaiman’s work, but especially in his landmark comic book Sandman, he showed an innate command of apparently every kind of story in world history, without making his work ever feel like musty Ph.D. research.
Like Gaiman’s best work, Stardust is blessed with airtight story logic, lively magical rules and perfect comic timing. The movie can fire our imagination with such words as “The fastest way to travel is by candlelight,” and then turn such notions to visuals without disappointing us. Perhaps if more people show such respect for the simple virtues of storytelling, filmmakers and audiences will be more likely to live happily ever after.
STARDUST ( * * * ½ )
Directed by Matthew Vaughn • Starring Claire Danes and Charlie Cox • PG-13, 128 min • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.