Stardust (2007)Rated PG-13 for some fantasy violence and risque humor.
Starring Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Sienna Miller, Ricky Gervais, Jason Flemyng, Rupert Everett, Peter O'Toole, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro.
LVJeff's Rating: 7/10
Photo ©Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.
A Playful Fantasy
Stardust may be the first movie I've watched that made me feel it was consciously aspiring to be The Princess Bride. This is interesting to me because I always thought Bride would remain one of those cult sleepers with a rabid but relatively small following. Now, 20 years later, its reputation stands well enough to be the inspiration for a certain flavor of fantasy, in direct opposition to the more serious one recently established by The Lord of the Rings, or even The Chronicles of Narnia movie.
In other words, Stardust, like The Princess Bride, is comfortable with winking. Each movie is ok with letting the audience know it is what it is -- a story being told. But Stardust doesn't use the device of actually showing someone reading to a kid; instead, it works the tone into the characters themselves, as they're prone to speak with a lot of sarcasm, or their morbid fates are treated with some bit of humor, which is actually a harder tactic to pull off -- the genius of Bride's framing device lies in allowing much of the winking to occur outside the realm of the actual fairy tale; that is, within the story, its characters are allowed to take most of what happens pretty seriously, injecting gravity to balance its irony.
Thus, Stardust's major challenge involves keeping a consistency in tone. Starting off, it feels awkward -- an encounter between an old border guard and a young would-be trespasser is presented with a half-hearted attempt at being funny; immediately afterwards, we're given a tryst-at-first-sight, eventually leading to a story about a young man who's majorly crushing on a beautiful neighbor but given an embarrassing smackdown by a rival. Meanwhile, we are now firmly set in the knowledge that nothing but a human-height stone wall separates an English village from this huge, magical realm. Are we supposed to take this seriously?
The early scene with Peter O'Toole finally gives us our answer, as his dying king actually encourages his sons to knock each other off in competition for his throne. It's silly, but it does a good job of relaxing us and loosening us up. Once at ease, we can take in the romantic adventure on a light, easy-to-swallow level. While disarming viewers with plenty of humorous moments, Stardust also wants to be taken seriously -- or, at least, seriously enough -- to give its romantic story a fair impact, and in that, I think it does well enough to pass the exam.
Overall, the movie seems quite straightforward, and we're allowed to simply soak in the pleasantly surprising amount of fun stuff here, such as Michelle Pfeiffer's courageous role of a witch who drinks a potion to make herself look younger, only to rapidly start looking old again the more she exerts magic. It's not a flattering part, but she not only embraces it, she tends to steal all the scenes. Many of the funny bits come from the princes feuding to inherit the throne; as they are killed, they become ghosts who have nothing better to do than to go along for the ride to see which prince gets it next. The cruelest one, Septimus (Mark Strong), eventually succumbs to black comedy as well. And Robert De Niro does well enough with a joke that gets extended more than it needed to be.
Meanwhile, all our central couple (Charlie Cox and Claire Danes) has to do is look pretty and fall in love. And Stardust is content with being just that -- a love story, a playful one that entertains for an evening. In that sense, it doesn't have quite the resonance of The Princess Bride, which actually reveals how a lot of us start off with soft insides but have grown thick armor during the pain of life. Stardust has a sensible, idealistic view of love, which goes along just fine with its chosen flavor of fantasy.
©Jeffrey Chen, Aug. 7, 2007