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by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Charles Vess
Discounted Hardcover from Amazon)
In a dimension somewhere between the fantastical corridors of a "Pan's Labyrinth" and the farcical extremes of Monty Python, "Stardust" glows with an unsteady light while evoking the style and incredibilia of Terry Gilliam ("The Adventures of Baron Munchausen").
As far removed from that mentorship as it may be possible to be, it's directed by Englishman Matthew Vaughn, who debuted as a director in 2004 with the well-received "Layer Cake," not exactly on-the-job-training for magical fantasy. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Jane Goldman from the novel by Neil Gaiman.
In bedtime story mode, narrator Ian McKellen ("X-Men: The Last Stand") tells us of the wall, a stone structure that separates the real from the unreal, England from Stormhold, a magical kingdom ruled as much by a king as by witchcraft. Speaking of which, the dying king (a resplendent Peter O'Toole, "Venus") is determining which of his still living sons is to succeed him, setting in motion a competition between such stalwarts as Primus (Jason Flemyng), Secundus (Rupert Everett) and Septimus (Mark Strong) that isn't without battles, stratagems and deadly deception. As each of them dies, they congregate into a black and white chorus like rowdy gods of the afterworld observing the drama among the still living from a ghostly parapet.
Ah, but our key figure is but a young lad, Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox, "Casanova"), a time when great desire fills his loins. True to that natural phenomenon, he is so enamored of beautiful villager Victoria (Sienna Miller), he'll do anything to shake her preference for richer, handsomer and equally superficial Humphrey (Henry Cavill) by promising to retrieve the fallen star, in the form of a jeweled necklace that just passed overhead, destined for Stormhold. For this, he embarks on a journey to the supernatural kingdom.
Matching wits with the Guard (David Kelly) at the only notch in the Wall where passage is possible, Tristan manages to get past him much in the same manner as his father Dunstan did at his age (Ben Barnes). What Tristan doesn't yet know is that his mother (Kate Magowan) is there, enslaved under the magical thumb of an itinerant witch.
As for the fallen star, she has met earth (or whatever it is in this shifting landscape), appearing as blond, long haired Yvaine (Claire Danes, "Shopgirl") who exudes halistic rays of light from her highlights a vision of wonderment. When Tristan discovers her, she's in need of some help and a relationship is borne which gets off on the wrong foot. Immediately they are at war while venturing forth, protecting her necklace and seeking escape from evil forces by returning to England. But, given her luminous sensuality and their sustained proximity and his growing manhood and capability, does fair Victoria really stand a chance?
The biggest obstacle to their survival, however, are the three witch sisters whose powers are the top of the game. Having lived hundreds of years and showing all the furrows of decaying skin to show for it, these crones are after Yvain's heart which, when eaten, will restore their youth. Chief among these is Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer, "White Oleander"), the cleverest, who uses her waning powers to become the young, gorgeous woman she once was, but on borowed time. In constant contact with her sisters as she goes forth to capture Yvaine, she's constantly being reminded that she may be wasting her batteries, a process we see in the increasing appearance of skin mold after a power exertion -- a seriously warning of a return to croneship. She'd better just concentrate on retrieving what to them is the holy grail.
In the torrent of magical action comes a subplot in which the traveling couple, Tristan and Evaine, after several close calls, find safe harbor aboard Captain Shakespeare's (Robert DeNiro) airborne galleon, refurbished from the Terry Gilliam prop shop.
As the innocent turned swashbuckler, in style, looks and functionality, I kept seeing Cox as an incarnation of Robert Downey, Jr. ("A Scanner Darkly") in some moments, Tobey Maguire ("Seabiscuit") in others. Admittedly, this might have been due to the spell I was under. Danes is a blend of deliciously desirable and fun-dampening annoying. DeNiro is channeling his showboating sense of whimsy last witnessed in "Analyze That."
With the wondrous talent of this star lineup, you might expect something more scintillating but, with some exceptions, the principals seem a bit beyond their comfort zones. The production gets swamped with too much to do, as though every gem of Gaiman's bag of wonders needed to be included. I imagine it plays better in literary form.
As it is, the filmmakers might have been better advised to save something for a sequel. That said, the redemptive sorcery of the enterprise is the non-serious tone, the three-ring fun of the showy inventions, and Pfeiffer's merry milking of the comedy cow (her sagging boobs bit is a howl).
~~ Jules Brenner
The DVD (Widescreen)