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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