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Stardust   B+

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn (based on the novel written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess)
Cast: Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Sienna Miller, Ricky Gervais, Jason Flemyng, Rupert Everett, Peter O'Toole, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro.

Review by Rob Vaux

Part the First, in which the critic rails with venomous passion against anticipated box-office returns.

Anybody who opts to go see the dismal Rush Hour 3 this weekend instead of the marvelous Stardust is forbidden from entering a movie theater again. Ever. Your mewling adherence to banal corporate homogeneity and spoon-fed distaste for anything that smacks of the slightest hint of originality has helped snuff out another tiny portion of the poetry in our souls. You have ignored the bright, the wondrous, and the imaginative in favor of the dull, the hackneyed, and the insulting. You have sunk our culture a little further into the swamp of mediocrity in which it hopelessly thrashes, and confirmed the sneering assumptions of Hollywood CEOs who pour their money into dehumanizing sequels instead of something actually worth a few hours of our time. For the unforgivable crime of being part of the problem, you and your children and your children's children are banished to the darkest corner of your neighborhood Blockbuster, where you will view naught but test patterns and used VHS copies of Miss Congeniality 2 for the rest of your wretched moviegoing lives.

Damn you...

Part the Second, in which the critic muses on the snazziness of Neil Gaiman, and examines the difficulties presented by adapting his works to the screen.

Seriously, anyone who passes up a Neil Gaiman story to watch Chris Tucker flop around like a rag doll needs to have their head examined. Gaiman stands as the premier fantasist of our age, mixing fairy-tale tropes with modern ironies in the most bewilderingly clever manner since Lewis Carroll. And yet as wondrous as his works can be -- and indeed, as grounded as they are in the realm of the visual -- they are very rarely cinematic. For one thing, he tends to meander. So full is his imagination that every passing tidbit bursts with potential, and he often can't resist turning off the main path for a lengthy visit to some engaging but superfluous cul-de-sac. For another thing, he rarely grounds his imagery in the narrative logic that Hollywood demands, instead adopting absurdity and the deliberate defiance of reader expectations as his primary weapons. Accordingly, he tends to function best with either short stories or graphic novels, the latter of which permit the sort of freeform structure that suits his proclivities. When paired with an illustrator who understands where he's coming from, the results take the breath away -- witness the best of his Sandman comics, for instance, or his intoxicating collaborations with Dave McKean. But remove him from that environment, and the fit isn't quite as comfortable. The dogs grow a lot of shag on them (take his enjoyable but shambling novel American Gods, for example) and the demands of a two-hour motion picture can cause even bigger problems. Small wonder that only one truly successful "Gaiman movie" has appeared before now -- 2005's extraordinary MirrorMask -- and that it relied almost entirely on CGI... to the point of resembling a living painter's canvas more than an actual film.

Such is the bull that Stardust (based on one of Gaiman's illustrated novels) must seize demonstrably by the horns: convey this man's vision in a manner that doesn't bastardize it, and yet avoid the tendencies that could derail it in this new medium. Though it comes close, it never quite pulls off the trick. Its episodic plot wanders hither and yon, keeping its central thread uncomfortably loose and occasionally poking its nose in places that might have been best saved for other projects. Similarly, the sights onscreen -- while decent -- are never more than that. They... suffice. They basically get the job done. But in pure visual terms, they also feel toned down and pedestrian -- limited by budgetary restraints and studio expectations that demand plausibility über alles. In short, they look like special effects: the kind we've seen too often before and which never engulf us the way an artists' illustration of the same vistas would.

Thankfully, they really don't need to.

Part the Third, in which the critic ruminates on how said difficulties are overcome and how said snazziness turns Stardust into the kind of entertainment Hollywood is supposed to produce.

Stardust works primarily because writer-director Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman labor mightily to preserve the essence of Gaiman's auteurial voice. As a result, the sights onscreen soar far higher than their unexceptional first impression suggests: riding on Gaiman's limitless imagination and the verbal wit that he tosses out with deceptively careless ease. We laugh and gasp and cheer and cry, not because we've seen some incredible image, but because the concept behind that image turns what we think we should be seeing straight on its ear. It adopts a slyly subversive tone -- two parts Princess Bride, one part Baron Munchausen -- and yet never disrespects its subject matter for a minute. It is, above all, a fantasy, and unlike many fantasies, it understands how to convey the brilliance of an entirely new world without burying us in arcane lexicon. It is at once simple and complex: its universe is richly detailed and yet conveyed to its audience with the same instant understanding as "once upon a time." We don't need to remember bizarre cultures or strange creatures to know why wicked witches do what they do, or question the willingness of an untested youth to rescue his one true love. Stardust toys delightfully with those age-old notions while managing, like The Princess Bride, to both satirize them and honor their spirit in deep and affectionate terms.

It begins with the magic portal to another world -- in this case, a breach in a stone wall next to a 19th-century British village that connects to a secret kingdom on the other side. One night, a star falls from the sky and a young village boy named Tristran (Charlie Cox) promises to travel through the portal and retrieve it for the girl he thinks he loves (Sienna Miller). There's just one snag. The star turns out to look just like Claire Danes -- winsome and irascible, though disturbingly eyebrow-free -- and she's not much interested in being anyone's wedding present. He offers to send her back to her home in the sky with a magic candle his mother gave him, but first she has to come with him to help keep his promise to his would-be paramour. It's a long walk back to the wall, however, and other, less benevolent forces have their eye on the star as well -- like the kingdom's cutthroat heirs, who need the jewel around her neck to become king, or the aforementioned wicked witches (led by Michelle Pfeiffer, rocking the sexy/evil like she always does), who want to cut her heart out to regain their lost youth.

Stardust lets us get comfortable with these figures -- and with the archetypical bedtime story encompassing them -- before Gaiman's incomparably clever twists hit us with their real juice. Many are incidental (flowers for sale that cost "the memory of the first three years of your life"), but others buoy the heart of the story with gleeful flair (the kingdom's princes are expected to kill each other off, with the last survivor claiming the throne: it gets the skullduggery out of the way before anyone else gets hurt) or provide marvelous interludes that almost make us forget how peripheral they are to the plot (we take an extended stay with Robert De Niro's high-flying buccaneer, who turns out to be more Ferdinand the Bull than Dread Pirate Roberts).

The dialogue remains a highlight, adhering to basic exposition but filled with Gaiman's depreciating cleverness and an innate sense of the peculiar cause-and-effect that all fairy tales exhibit. If the visuals don't quite enthrall us the way they should, Stardust backs them up with such joyful storytelling conceits that they seem far greater than they would with a lesser mind behind them. Best of all, the film lands amid summer's perennial dumping ground, when sleazy, debased little cash grabs come to hustle their wares to the undemanding. Stardust waits there like its hidden gem of a heroine, ready to engage us the way no half-baked studio cast-off ever could. The Two-Headed Ogre of Ratner stands ready to devour it whole, but films this enjoyable should never submit to such a fate. Take a look for yourself -- you'll see what I mean -- and maybe there will be enough of us to give it the attention and success it deserves.

Review published 08.10.2007.

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