First of all, if you're reading this review, I'm assuming that you've heard of Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, or Robert De Niro, at the very least. However, if you haven't heard of Neil Gaiman, then you really need to buy one of his books immediately. Seriously. If you love fantasy, and haven't heard of him, then it's high time you did. I'll wait patiently. Of course, if you have heard of him, then you're probably eager to hear all about Stardust.
I managed to see Stardust once at an early screening at Comic-Con, and again just recently. I wanted to see it a second time to catch up on some plot points and details early on in the film, and was planning on leaving soon afterwards ... but I ended staying through and watching the entire thing for a second time.
When people think "fantasy" these days, the first thing that usually springs to mind are films like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but for me it will always mean movies like The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth, and The Princess Bride. After Rob Reiner hit such a powerful home run with The Princess Bride, it seemed like Hollywood shut the door on the fantasy genre, and when they reappeared they were lavish, over-the-top numbers full of swordplay and battle sequences. There have been a few exceptions to the rule, like Guillermo del Toro's wonderful Pan's Labyrinth, but other wise heavy on the CGI, with little to no character development, was the standing order of the day.
Happily, Stardust is a return to those old fantasy films, particularly The Princess Bride, although there is a fair amount of CGI tossed in as well. Perhaps a bit too much at times, but I'm happy enough to have this genre back that I'm willing to be a bit forgiving. There are many familiar elements here such as a coveted item, which in this case is the fallen star Yvaine, played by Claire Danes. Several people want their hands on said item, chief among them being the evil witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), so naturally a chase ensues. Chivalrous young lad Tristan (Charlie Cox), who is only a boy when when the story begins, must undergo some training, courtesy of Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), and comes to the aid of the damsel (or star) in distress, and so on and so forth.
However, this is an area where Gaiman excels. He can take familiar story ingredients and mix them up in such a way that when they come out of the oven, they feel fresh and new. Screenwriter Jane Goldman deserves credit for this as well, having taken Gaiman's slim "illustrated novel" and deftly turning it into a two hour film that keeps the source material close at heart, but strays from the path where it needs to, like introducing us to Tristan (Tristran in the novel, thanks to director Matthew Vaughn read a misprint on an older copy) much earlier than he appears in the book.
The performances are all fairly spot-on as well, with Michelle Pfeiffer's scenery-chewing Lamia approaching the screen-villainess level of Glenn Close's Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians. In fact, the transformation she undergoes from old witchy-poo (she spends much of the film in pretty nasty-looking latex makeup) to young hottie makes me wonder where she's been all for the past several years. Sure, she's doing Hairspray this year too, but where have you been? Wherever it was, it did wonders for her, because she looks fantastic.
De Niro seems a bit out of place as the Captain Shakespeare, a sort of pirate of the skies who catches lightning in his ship. However, there's a big "Dread Pirate Roberts" thing going on with him that would be too much of a spoiler to post here, so you'll just have to see it. It's a bit jaw-dropping, and you might never think of someone dancing the Can Can in the same light afterwards. I'm still not sure how audiences will take the other side of his character, but it's surprising it's not featured heavily in the advertisements for the movie. It's definitely something that would put rear ends into seats, if not just to figure out what the heck is going on.
The real spotlight, however, is on Charlie Cox, who truly shines brighter than Claire Danes (pun intended), and he's ultimately the one who sells the film. His earnest face and demeanor convey innocence, longing, and love much more than his lines do, and he carries the audience through the story as the eyes and ears into the strange land within a land that the kingdom of Stormhold turns out to be. That's not to demean Danes' work, because she is quite capable as Yvaine. I'm happy that they cast someone with talent in this role, and not simply a seam-busting blonde with a pretty face. It's hard not to draw parallels between her and Buttercup from The Princess Bride, or between Tristan and Wesley from the same movie, but it's more of a "warm the cockles of your heart" comparison, rather than a "hey, what the?!" comparison.
There's a complete subplot in the movie that almost becomes more watchable than the main story at times. It involves seven brothers, three of whom are dead at the start of the film, all vying to become the king of Stormhold once their father (Peter O'Toole) expires. It's a real cutthroat family where you have to watch your back at all times, and the movie follows brothers Primus (Jason Flemyng ... a woefully underused actor) and Septimus (Mark Strong, at times showing that he has more bite than Michelle Pfeiffer does) as they cross paths with the fallen star. There is also a hilarious cameo from Ricky Gervais that recalls a bit of David Brent from the BBC version of The Office, and makes me wish his part in the film was a bit bigger.
The film does start out slowly, and there are a few lines of painfully expositional dialogue, which is something I really can't stand. Lamia remarks to her sister that she could get to the star a lot quicker if she had a Babylon candle (candlelight is the fastest way to travel in Stormhold), and her sister says "You speak of such things as if they were freely available!" To which Lamia snaps back, "I know!" Ouch.
Other than a few rough patches in the beginning however, the film moves along nicely, and I found myself on the edge of my seat during the second screening, even though I knew what was going to happen. Two young girls leaving the theater near me said to each other "Oh my god, that was so good!", "I know!" and I remember what it was like when I walked out of the theater after seeing The NeverEnding Story. It's a really good feeling to have again.