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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Stardust (review)

Mild Fun Storming the Castle

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Stardust. I like it just fine: it’s sweet and amusing and nicely diverting. And it’s colorful enough and clever enough and jam-packed enough with all sorts of pretty to wonder at that if this is your kinda thing, it’s definitely worth seeing on a big screen.

But it’s not the next Princess Bride, as many of a geek persuasion have been suggesting. I knew better than to get my hopes up too much in this regard — this can be no “next” Princess Bride; The Princess Bride is unique among movies; I’ve thought a lot about this. But tiny sneaky bits of hope wormed their way into my brain anyway. Could it possibly be? Could Stardust possibly be something as profoundly silly, as ridiculously perfect?
It isn’t, and that is tingeing my less-than-wild enthusiasm for Stardust, and I know that’s absurd. It’s like expecting every play you see to be Shakespeare, every novel to be Austen. It’s not fair at all to Stardust, but there it is.

I think, maybe, my small problems with Stardust stem from how it feels, in some places, like it’s actually trying to be the next Princess Bride. There’s a self-conscious jokiness about the movie that feels a tad tacked on, as if a more traditional, more straightforward fantasy tale was quirked up by a snarky screenwriter assigned to evoke Bride. (I haven’t read the Neil Gaiman novel upon which this is based, but I’m guessing there was less wisecracking in it.) The centerpiece story — about a young man, Tristan (the charming Charlie Cox: Casanova, The Merchant of Venice), who goes in search of a shooting star to impress a pretty girl (Sienna Miller: Factory Girl, Casanova), and discovers a dazzling celestial creature, Yvaine (Claire Danes: Evening, The Family Stone), to fall in love with instead — is played straight, for the most part. Tristan’s sweet naivete is the source of some gentle, good-natured humor — oh my god, but Cox is going to be a huge star — but that only serves to point out that a lot of everything else happening around them is “funny,” or trying to be, and not always quite making the funny work in a way that’s organically integrated with the whole.

The five brother princes who are after Yvaine for reasons that have to do with determining who gets to take the throne just vacated by their father the king? They work in a way that feels like it sprang from this world, this magical realm of Stormhold, bickering over rules of inheritance and indulging in the intrigue and violence that is theirs by royal birthright. (Mark Strong [Tristan & Isolde, Syriana] as Septimus, the seventh brother, makes a deliciously villainous villain.) But the trio of wicked and ancient witches who want Yvaine for her heart, which will lend them new youth? They’re a little bit too clumsily over-the-top — yes, Michelle Pfeiffer (Hairspray, Sinbad: Legend of the 7 Seas) is having a lot of fun chewing up the scenery and getting to be all “brave” for looking like a crone onscreen, but how these creature fit into the world of Stormhold is a bit of a mystery. They’re just there, and they’re just bad, okay?

The band of pirates, on the other hand, are partly fascinating: they fly through the clouds and harvest lightning, which apparently fetches a pretty price on the ground. Tristan and Yvaine tarry with them for a while on their journey, which give Tristan a chance to learn some swordfighting (you can almost hear Westley saying, “It was a fine time for me…”). And there’s a really wonderful bit of business about the top pirate, Captain Shakespeare (Robert DeNiro: The Good Shepherd, Hide and Seek), and how he maintains his mean reputation for bloodthirstiness and other wicked pirate behavior — it verges almost too much on the concept behind the rotating Dread Pirate Robertses, but it works organically within the story… until Shakespeare reveals his true nature, which is far too forced, and inhabited by DeNiro far too uncomfortably, for all that he’s cutting loose with it. You chuckle at it for the moment, but it doesn’t feel true in any way approaching truth, for all its absurdity, that Bride does.

Still, it’s all in good fun, even if it won’t enjoy the kind of enduring cult adoration that The Princess Bride does. It’ll do till until Bride’s real successor finally comes along.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for some fantasy violence and risque humor

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
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  • MauledByMidgets

    Hmmm, the moment I saw Ricky ‘Salesman’ Gervais in the trailer I started to smell feces (America, I apologise on behalf of all Britain – you already have enough one-trick ponies besmirching your entertainment media without taking on our dead wood).

    Damn shame, because the book is lovely and the ending moved me to tears. Ah well: I’ll just have to watch Pan’s Labyrinth again.

  • Drave

    Hey, now, it’s still a positive rating. It’s even an above-average rating. MaryAnn, you should definitely read the book. Actually, read the storybook version, not the unillustrated novel. Neil Gaiman has been saying some entertaining things in his blog about the reviews. Yes, a lot of people are comparing it to The Princess Bride. His response is that it’s not that the movie is really anything like The Princess Bride; it’s just that they are the only two movies ever made in that particular genre.

  • Whomever made the connection between the
    film adaptation of “Stardust” and the film
    version of “The Princess Bride” may have
    inadvertently set many on the path to
    disappointment.

    Having read the story as a novel, there
    are numerous fairy tale elements, romance,
    true love, valor, and a bit of magic, but
    nothing in the novel made me recall “The
    Princess Bride”.

    Overall, I enjoyed the film, and felt that
    the screenplay managed to streamline the
    story in such a way that few significant
    details were lost, which tends to be the
    largest fault I find with books that are
    adapted to film.

    I admit that I was deeply afraid this film
    would flop, as I enjoy the works of Neil
    Gaiman, and am thrilled to see his genius
    applied to the “Big Screen”. I found the
    movie enjoyable, but sadly, I don’t believe
    it will appeal to a wide audience in the
    U.S.

  • Drave

    Just got back from it. I found it to be quietly amazing. There was no individual part that blew me away, or made me go “Wow, this movie is amazing!” But, at the end of the night, I left the theater happier than I have been in months. I think that says enough.

  • MaryAnn

    MaryAnn, you should definitely read the book.

    I’ve ordered a copy and eagerly await it.

  • misterb

    Actually, while it was good enough, “Stardust” was my least favorite of the Neil Gaiman novels. I’m sure that many FF readers are much bigger Gaimanites than I am, but I loved “American Gods”. I think it would make a fantastic movie as well; the action is human-sized, and not overly internal.
    As far as other books that might be “Princess Bride” like – James Thurber wrote a book called the “White Deer” – it’s ostensibly a children’s book in the same sort of way.

  • I’ll concur. Stardust is the least of Gaiman’s works. I wasn’t nuts about American Gods, either. Gaiman’s more the master of the short story and the comic book (and even then, much of his comic work falls well short of Sandman, which is such an immense achievement that Gaiman’s going to spend the rest of his life trying to escape out from under it.)

    The book was indeed light on the wisecracks, though the odd-couple travelogue style was there. However, while I haven’t seen the movie, I read an interview with Vaughn in which he indicated that he needed to add a third act to the story, which is absolutely right. The novel is highly anticlimactic.

    I’m interested to see the upcoming animated “Beowulf”, which Gaiman co-scripted, but I think the Gaiman project to watch is “Coraline”, a Henry Selick-animated version of his creepy kid’s book.

  • I really wanted to comment on this post because I read a similar (well much more negative) review in AMNY recently and they’ve got it just plain wrong. Drave sums up my feelings exactly. This was a really well told story with a lot of fun to it that leaves the viewer with an overwhelming sense of happiness. While I can see the comparison to Bride, I think by making it you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. This film can stand alone.

    posted by Drave (August 11, 2007 3:49 AM)

    Just got back from it. I found it to be quietly amazing. There was no individual part that blew me away, or made me go “Wow, this movie is amazing!” But, at the end of the night, I left the theater happier than I have been in months. I think that says enough.

  • Katie

    I haven’t seen the movie yet but I LOVE the book (actually rereading it now in preparation for the movie) and I have to say I’m worried about this movie. True my natural dislike for Claire Danes is playing a part in that but, well, I just don’t want it to ruin the book. Which, judging by your review, it doesn’t but still…. Here’s hoping.

    PS. I recommend all of Neil Gaiman’s books.

  • MBI

    I consider this movie the equal of The Princess Bride. And I want to defend myself by saying that I made this connection on my own, I hadn’t heard the comparisons beforehand. But understand, I think The Princess Bride is overrated. (By which I mean I think it’s only three-and-a-half stars out of four, so no one come around to kill me.) I certainly thought the humor in this movie was far, far less forced than The Princess Bride’s, or even the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (except for Gay De Niro of course, enjoyable but highly questionable). I admit that Stardust isn’t reinventing the wheel or anything, the only thing that really makes it stand out is that it’s consistently charming and fun. So for sheer creativity, it’s not quite the Princess Bride. But it’s certainly not Eragon either.

    Claire Danes makes a better princess that Robin Wright Penn. *runs*

  • Mel

    I think I’d agree with Gaiman that the movies (and books) really aren’t that alike, just the only movies in that genre (which isn’t the most popular for books, either). Personally, I really enjoyed the movie adaptation of Stardust on a very different level from the Princess Bride.

    I liked more things than I disliked about drag De Niro, which is pretty rare for me and how gay drag queens are usually handled by Hollywood–but he was assuredly no Hugo Weaving as Mitzi.

  • MaryAnn

    The problem with DeNiro is that *he* seems uncomfortable in drag. For this character to really work, he should be MORE himself in drag than out of it.

  • Brook

    Wow, Hugo Weaving would have been such a better casting choice than De Niro. I, too, thought he wasn’t able to really let himself go in the role.

    Gotta say though, Ricky Gervais was just fine. He brought a bit of (his own) personality to the character.

    The great Gaiman movie has yet to be made, but this is the best so far. Much better story than Mirrormask and much better put together than Neverwhere. It’s enjoyable, but certainly no Princess Bride.

  • Sandy J

    I really enjoyed the book and was eagerly awaiting the movie, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. I think the movie version ending is more satisfying than the book. More dramatic.
    I was wondering if the opening weekend of the movie was intentionally planned for the same weekend as the Perseids meteor shower. I hope someone else noticed that and after watching the movie, spent the night watching falling stars!!!

  • People used to push Sandman on me back in the ’80s, and I just didn’t like it. Frankly, until I read American Gods (which is completely brilliant), I wasn’t a Gaiman fan. Since then, I’ve read most of his novels and enjoy them very much.

    I just read Stardust last week, and it’s more different from the movie than the book The Princess Bride is from its movie version. Most of the changes in The Princess Bride were to compress the story. Most of the changes in Stardust were to make it a more “exciting” movie.

    While Stardust isn’t quite as laugh-out-loud funny as The Princess Bride, it’s humor is very wry. The casting is wonderful. Claire Danes did a terrific job basically playing an alien. Charlie Cox is great. And both Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert DeNiro are so over-the-top that they work very well. The ghost stuff is a hoot. The special effects, especially the morphing and make-up effects, are very good.

    There are a few flaws in the movie, however. To start with, the music is too derivative of Lord of the Rings. Listen carefully and you’ll hear echoes of some of the major themes. Ditto some of the camera shots. And while the editing is generally pretty good, the big climactic scene was badly directed and edited. It needed to be about half as long.

    Still, I do recommend the movie. I’ll drag my teenaged niece off to it when I go visit my family next week. Seems like the Russians have better taste in movies than the Americans these days – Stardust was the #1 movie in Russia last week.

  • t6

    I really enjoyed Stardust…though I’m still on the fence about DeNiro.

    But what I wanted to pipe in about wasn’t my enjoyment of the film, but the audience. I saw it at the Fox in Westwood at 10pm on a Saturday night. And there were a lot of high school kids there…boys and girls alike. And at the end of the movie, I could hear the enthusiastic hoots and holllers of high school boys and girls.

    That was pretty cool.

    I hope it does well.

  • JoshDM

    Finally saw this last night via the Net of Flix.

    The fist thing I thought of was coming here to see if your review made mention of this flick as “as close to a Princess Bride for the next generation”.

    Not disappointed.

  • Gee

    I saw this relatively recently, and was enjoying it until something struck me. The female characters are either powerless/pretty/good or powerful/ugly/bad.

    The hero’s mother gets shoved out of the room when the action starts at the end and only returns after it’s over. The Star only works her magic because the hero is there to start it and she is romantically inclined towards him.

    The only one bucking the trend is the girl the hero likes at the beginning, but she’s quite insipid anyway, so her brand of pretty/evil is more like pretty/a bit unlikeable.

    Normally, I’m pretty clueless about gender issues but this really got to me, I think because the male roles were so much more interesting and because this film sets out to be ‘different’ from the traditional take on fairy tales.

  • MaryAnn

    The female characters are either powerless/pretty/good or powerful/ugly/bad.

    That’s pretty much standard for Hollywood. Or hadn’t you noticed?

  • Gee

    “That’s pretty much standard for Hollywood. Or hadn’t you noticed?”

    I just was disappointed because this was supposed to be a fresh take. Also, because I’d been enjoying it up until I realized and that made it worse. I think it was the literal ‘you wait outside!’ to the mother that did it!

  • I have yet to be truly satisfied by a Gaiman film. Here’s to the forthcoming Coraline: may it fully exceed our frilly expectations.

    I saw Stardust about a year ago I guess, and I thought bits of it were very good, especially everything with DeNiro. But for the most part it was sufficiently underwhelming as to be almost totally, and instantly, forgettable.

  • JoshDM

    I don’t see all the hub-ub.

    DeNiro plays a fairly strong feminine character in this flick.

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