Reel Opinions

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


August is usually regarded as the time of year when the studios release their lesser summer movies. All the blockbusters have been trotted out, so we have to go through a month of the movies the studios knew wouldn't cut it. That's why it's such a surprise to see a movie like Stardust released around this time. Maybe Paramount didn't have faith in it, but they should have. This is a highly entertaining, original, witty, and just plain fun fantasy adventure film. That's not to say the film doesn't have its problems, but to banish it to the dog days of late summer seems somewhat extreme. Whatever the reason for being released so late in the summer, Stardust is some of the most fun I've personally had watching a movie this season.

The hero of the story is Tristan (Charlie Cox), a young man who lives in the village of Wall, named so because it is surrounded by a wall that the townspeople are forbidden to cross over. Tristan is lovestruck by a young woman in his village named Victoria (Sienna Miller), and in order to prove his love for her, he tells her that he will track down a star that they saw falling from the sky late one night, find where it landed, and bring it back to her. This means he will have to cross past the wall into the forbidden territory that lies beyond it. On the other side, he finds the magical fantasy world of Stormhold. He quickly tracks down the place where the star fell to earth, and finds a young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes) in its place. She claims that she is indeed the star, and that she only wishes to return to her rightful place in the sky. She's not happy about the idea of Tristan using her as a present for his love, but the two eventually work out a compromise where he will return Yvaine to her home after he presents her to Victoria. Unfortunately, Tristan is not the only one seeking Yvaine. The three greedy sons of a dead king (Peter O'Toole in a funny cameo) are looking for Yvaine, because she holds a piece of jewelry that could make them officially the new King of Stormhold. They're willing to do whatever it takes to reach her before anyone else, even eliminate the competition looking for her. Not only that, a trio of evil witches led by the powerful Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer) seek Yvaine, because if they were to cut out her heart and eat it, they could retain their former beauty and power.

With a two hour plus running time and a multi-layered plot competing for our attention, it's a small miracle that co-writer and director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) manages to keep the action moving constantly in Stardust without ever slowing down or without allowing the story to become overwhelming or complex. Based on the acclaimed novel by Neil Gaiman, Stardust is a grand fantasy adventure that is wise enough to not take itself too seriously and has a wonderful sense of humor throughout. The movie is wise to its own cliches, and plays against our expectations, without drawing attention to itself. This is not exactly a parody, where the characters seem to be in on the joke, but rather a movie that is smart enough to give us credit to know that we've seen all of this before, and puts a slightly humorous spin on it without ever cheapening the drama of the story. The closest film I can compare Stardust to is 1987's masterpiece, The Princess Bride. Though it's a far cry from that classic, it does have the same knowing sense of wit about the film. Stardust is filled with wonderful sights and characters, brought to life by some impressive special effects and some wonderful performances by the cast gathered. There are no wasted characters, as everyone plays some part in the story, and even the smallest supporting character gets his or her own moment to stand out. In particular, Robert De Niro gives a great comic performance as the gruff Captain of a band of sky pirates who fly through the skies in an airship, and hides some certain secret flamboyant tendencies behind his mens' backs. In lesser hands, the character may have stood out negatively and seemed to have walked in from a different movie. But the screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman knows how to make him and all the other characters that inhabit Stormhold into believable and likable characters that we can attach ourselves to.

The film is not always about having fun with itself, and also knows how to be serious when the need arrives. The drama surrounding Tristan and Yvaine's quest to return to the village of Wall is filled with dangers, and the movie knows how to bring about a heightened sense of tension. A memorable sequence where Yvaine is unknowingly lured into a trap at an Inn set by the witches is suspenseful and appropriately thrilling as the scene unfolds. There is a genuine sense of danger that runs throughout the adventure, so we find ourselves wanting to see the characters succeed and reach their goal safely. And yet, the movie is never so scary or dark that young children in the lower double digits could not watch it. It is rated PG-13, but contains nothing that kids probably haven't seen in some of the later Harry Potter films. The movie knows how to balance the fantasy whimsy, the humor, and the darker elements in a way that they lead and blend into each other, instead of making the movie seem like its schizophrenic and switching gears every couple minutes. I guess if I were to find any fault with Stardust's narrative is that although it does a great job of juggling multiple plots and characters, some could have been trimmed. A good example is the running gag involving a group of ghosts who follow along with the adventure and add somewhat of a commentary, which never quite takes off like it should. I can understand why it's there, as it fits into the story, but at the same time it just doesn't work as well as the filmmakers probably intended.

In an adventure story such as this, casting is important, since we have to be able to identify with the characters despite the impossible situations they find themselves surrounded by. In his first lead role, British actor Charlie Cox is a real find as young Tristan. He makes a great everyman, and yet, it is also believable when he becomes more of a hero as the film goes on, and finds himself determined to protect this strange woman he's discovered. He's vulnerable yet strong at the same time, which makes him easy for the audience to identify with. Claire Danes has a much more difficult task, as she must portray someone who is not even human actually. She is spirited and sweet, and yet there is something appropriately alien about her performance. Like she fits in with the rest of the cast, but at the same time, we can tell that she doesn't belong in the same world as all the other characters. She is the heart of the film as she discovers her feelings for Tristan and for the people she encounters, and Danes is able to convey every emotion of this very complex character. In her second "villain" role in less than a month after July's Hairspray, Michelle Pfieffer seems to be having a ball as the witch Lamia. She's appropriately threatening and cunning, but not without a sly sense of humor. Everyone, in fact, seems to be having a great time, especially the previously mentioned De Niro who gets the opportunity to play somewhat against type. The fun that these actors are having carries throughout the film, and gives the film a wonderful boost of energy.
In a summer where films that have emphasized style over substance have been rewarded with big box office (Transformers), it would be a crime if Stardust went undiscovered. Here is a movie that has all the action, special effects, exotic locations, and wonder that you could want in a summer blockbuster, but has genuine heart, emotion, and wit to spare. This is a wonderful film, and I can only hope the late summer release does not turn people away. Stardust is captivating and entertaining in a way that few films this season have been. It's able to amaze us with its technical feats, but it is also able to make us feel for its characters and the story it tells. Quite a rare combination, if you ask me.



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