A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, PG-13, 122 mins.
Yvaine: Claire Danes / Tristan: Charlie Cox / Capt.
Shakespeare: Robert De Niro / Victoria: Sienna Miller /
Lamia: Michelle Pfeiffer / Primus: Jason Flemyng / King of
Stormhold: Peter O'Toole / Secundus: Rupert Everett /
Narrator: Ian McKellen
Apparently director Matthew Vaughn (LAYER CAKE) pitched his proposed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 1998 illustrated novel, STARDUST, as THE PRINCESS BRIDE meets PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. I would also hasten to add that the film also appears to have several regurgitated elements from countless other whimsical fantasies. I think what is crucial for this genre is the right combination of originality and imagination. The best fantasies should inspire endless wonder in their viewers to the point where one does feel whisked away to another time and place. Unfortunately, the only thing that STARDUST ultimately inspires is petty boredom.
The film certainly has its heart in the right place; it tells a simple and kind-hearted story with black and white heroes and villains. Yet, the film’s overall tonality is wickedly all over the map. My main misgiving with this fantasy is not with its spirit and enthusiasm, but rather with its focus. It tries to be like THE PRINCESS BRIDE in terms of having a sly and self-deprecating sense of humor, yet it is hardly that film’s tongue-in-cheek match. On top of that, the film seems to forget the type of comedic romp that it wants to be throughout its running time. Overstuffed is an adjective that comes chiefly to mind when thinking about STARDUST. It never seems to really decide on (a) what it wants to be about and (b) the type of mood it hopes to achieve. Filled with wicked witches, dying kings, ancient prophecies, a spunky hero, and a magical land, STARDUST simply has too many ingredients vying for attention. Not only that, but its pacing is elephantine in nature; most good fantasies never aspire you to check your watch as feverously as this one does.
The film attempts to have a nice and delicate balancing act between being a lighter-than average fairy tale with comedic elements alongside some decidedly darker narrative flourishes. There are moments that are over-the-top and ridiculous that coincide with some ghoulish instances of mild horror. I think that the reason for the success of THE PRINCESS BRIDE was in how it never went to appease too many stylistic sensibilities. That film was sweet and innocent and worked efficiently as a throwback to the types of fantasies that would be read to us as children at bedtime. STARDUST never really knows what its mood will be from scene to scene. It suffers from cinematic personality disorder as a result; coherence has been pushed to the background.
Perhaps even worse is the fact that the film never attains a level of out-of-body wonderment that far many other – and better – fantasies have achieved. The film’s visual palette is surprisingly sparse and limited, and its visual effects seem to lack the polish and sheen that other similar films have attained. Its immortally colorless hero, played in a bland and one-note performance by Charlie Cox, does not assist the film’s bland vibe, not to mention that we have to sit through a rather inconsistent English accent provided by Claire Danes (who looks like the victim of a very bad makeover) in the film’s other integral part. For these types of romantic-fuelled fantasies we desperately need the male and female figures to have chemistry and intrigue. Danes and Cox have very little, and this is only compounded by Cox's considerable lack of charisma.
Thankfully, the film is saved in the performance realm by Michelle Pfeiffer, who once again plays opposite of type to portray a dastardly villain (she did the same – to much better effect – in HAIRSPRAY). The other performance worth mentioning is by Robert De Niro, who plays a pirate…that is also a closeted transvestite. Whereas Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow was foppishly effeminate, De Niro’s swashbuckler has a more in-your-face homoeroticism. Outwardly, he’s a cast iron SOB with a violent streak. Inwardly, he has an appreciation for fine dresses, trendy hairstyles, and good high heel shoes. De Niro, who has made a career for playing monumentally scary and imposing men, plays deliciously against type as the very girly pirate. When he’s on screen the film comes alive. Unfortunately, his part is fairly limited in scope.
The film’s plot, which appropriates the basic storyline from Gaiman’s novel, concerns young Tristan (Cox), an Englishman that ekes out a daily life of redundancy and monotony. His only ambition in life is to win the hand of the woman he adores, Victoria (Sienna Miller). Of course, the sexy and gorgeous Victoria is not in Tristan’s league, but she does tease him with a date, despite the fact that she has one of those obligatorical snobby, A-hole boyfriends. Yet, she makes him and offer that he can’t refuse. One night when the two have a candlelight engagement they see a shooting star blaze by overhead. She tells him that if he is able to successfully retrieve it and bring it back to her that she will dump her obnoxious suitor and embrace Tristan.
Of course, Tristan will do absolutely anything to gain Victoria’s affection, so he willfully agrees to find the spot where the star fell to earth. Unfortunately for him, this brings him past his small town’s mysterious wall that separates it from a magical, off-limits fantasyland (for reasons unexplained, the security that separates the two worlds is astoundingly lacking). Anyhoo’, Tristan makes it past the rather weak guard at the wall and enters the magical world of Stormhold. To his surprise, he discovers that the star has the appearance of a woman, who is named Yvaine (pronounced "vain", played by Danes). Yvaine, being a celestial being, contains such sought after secretes, like how to achieve immortality, proving herself to be a highly valuable commodity.
Nevertheless, Tristan is able to convince her to accompany him back to Victoria if he will assist her with getting back “home”. Yet, the two don't know that there are others that are battling to find and capture the fallen star. Firstly, there is nasty old hag of a witch named Lamia (Pfeiffer) who wants to capture Yvaine, cut out her heart, and eat it so that she can look eternally beautiful and young (when we first see her, she is a wart infested old hag; she has spells that will make her look momentarily young, but each new usage of magic turns her older again). The other party that wants to acquire the star is The Learesque King Stormhold (Peter O’Toole, wonderful, if not criminally underused, in the part), who has three living sons…and four dead ones. The dead sons appear as monochromed spectres, revealing their visages at the time of their respective deaths (one poor son has to walk eternally as a ghost with an axe plunged into his head). In order for the King’s throne to continue on past his death, he desperately needs the necklace worn by Yvaine, which will finalize the coronation of a living heir. One of his sons, Septimus (played in a decent performance of slimy evil by Mark Strong) will stop at nothing to rid the world of his other two living brothers in order to become the next King.
Clearly, Tristan and Yvaine spend most of the film eluding capture and narrowly escape death on many occasions. They do manage to find a few friends and allies, the most prominent being a pirate named – yes – Captain Shakespeare (the wonderfully spirited and refreshingly jovial De Niro) who commands a pirate vessel that looks like a cross between the Black Pearl and a Zeppelin. The Captain is such a fiendishly giddy and amusing creation that you almost wish the entire film centered on him alone. He is a duplicitous figure, to say the least. He has to appear rugged and manly in conviction to his ship’s crew (one of the film’s funniest scenes shows him faking killing a man just to curb their favor), but inwardly he’s probably the gayest pirate ever to pillage the seas…or…air.
De Niro plays Shakespeare broadly and outlandishly, which is the correct mode for the role. It’s only a shame that the rest of the film did not maintain his silly and capricious energy and spunk. There is a scene of great spirit and hearty laughs when Shakespeare parades in front of a mirror with his favourite dress on. Some De Niro loyalists may cry foul and point out this being an embarrassing turn for the actor. To the contrary, seeing De Niro lose himself in such a ridiculous and eccentric part as one of STARDUST’S real treats. A brief cameo by the great Ricky Gervais also assists in the film’s comic relief, but his immense comic timing and skills are all but muted with a very small cameo. He certainly could have been used to a much greater degree.
However much wacky irreverence that De Niro gives to STARDUST, the rest of the film is a comic dead zone. This, of course, is where all favourable comparisons to the wonderfully funny THE PRINCESS BRIDE ends. The rest of STARDUST is never as sardonic and crafty as it professes to be, not to mention that the film lacks ingenuity with most of its characters and locales. Although Pfeiffer’s witch is entertaining in her sinfulness, there is nothing that separates her witch from the countless other ones that I’ve seen before in other films. The film also never makes its fairy land a place that is magical or memorable. Whereas LORD OF THE RINGS and the STAR WARS films were evocative and compelling for crafting awesome sights in their respective universes, STARDUST seems pitifully labored and manufactured. There is not one compelling or inspiring image to be had from Stormhold. Instead of transporting us to a foreign land that bustles with uniqueness, STARDUST’s universe is unremarkably flaccid and dull.
STARDUST is not so much a star-studded train wreck of a fantasy as it is a large misappropriation of the talent involved. De Niro’s Captain Shakespeare is an infectious riot, and Pfeiffer has a considerable amount of fun playing a witch, but the two of them alone cannot overcome a decidedly underwhelming fantasy. The film tries to be tongue-in-cheek, inventive, and romantic with its underlining story, but it genuinely lacks the necessary merriment, originality, and likeable leads that it desperately requires. There are some elements of STARDUST that soar above the mediocrity of its inferior ones, but the sum of a few of its good parts do not make the overall film better than a largely forgettable and tedious bit of summer escapism. For a film that proclaims to have magic in it, it scarcely manages to achieve a glimmer of fantastical intrigue.
THE PRINCESS BRIDE it ain’t.