Ghosts, Pirates, and Stars: A Review of Stardust


Neil Gaiman wrote the graphic novel Stardust and Charles Vess illustrated it. It was actually less of a comic book in the sequential art sense, than it was an illustrated novella. I loved the original, although I never read the fully prosed out version that came later. The approach was fitting because the story of Tristan Thorne and his quest to recover a fallen star had a touch of whimsy and bedtime story-ness that the format drove home. I could easily imagine reading the story to a child and pausing to turn the book around and show the illustrations. It’s hard to capture the same feel on film, but director Mathew Vaughan was willing to give it a try with mixed results.

Most of the positive reviews I have read for the film make a favorable comparison to The Princess Bride, and most of the negative reviews discuss how far short of the mark the film falls. The subject matter and overall tone of the film make it a difficult comparison to resist because Stardust has the same sort of sincere sense of adventure as Bride, even if it is messier and more sprawling, sweeter and less engaging. They share a sense of the timeless. The plot of Stardust follows Tristan as he enters the magical otherwrold of Stormhold in order to find a fallen star and deliver it to the object of his infatuation. When he finds that the star has become a person (Claire Danes) things become more complicated. Things get complicated because she is being pursued by Michelle Pfeiffer’s evil witch and Mark Strong’s evil prince for the purposes of immortality via heart-eating and ascension to the throne via locket recovery, respectively. All roads converge on the couple and the movie turns into an extended chase sequence as all the interested parties descend on the star and her erstwhile defender during their journey back to Tristan’s home in the real-world village of Wall.

Things move along at a decent pace, but there are a number of subplots and asides that occasionally hamstring the central action. The convoluted nature of the plot works to the film’s advantage by not dwelling for too long on any particular misadventure. There is an inherent air of everything but the kitchen sink having being thrown in. How could there not be when a movie contains royal intrigues, dying kings, ghosts, multiple animal transformations, sword fights, temporary gender reassignment, air pirates, gay air pirates, lightning merchants, mistaken identity, curses, zombies, voodoo dolls, animal noises (coming from human mouths), and a glowing girl? Yet the disparate elements do come together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Even when the movie missteps, as it does with Robert Deniro’s portrayal of a closeted pirate captain who dances around in frilly dresses and styles our hero’s hair, it has such a relentless adventurous spirit that you can’t help but forgive it its faults. The movie is fun, even it lacks the gravitas of say, The Lord of the Rings or even any of the recent Harry Potter flicks. I particularly liked the ghosts of the dead princes who have been quietly offing each other for years and are now forced to coexist in the afterlife commenting on the action of the film like a Greek chorus.

The film is firmly on the more adult side of the PG-13 spectrum. While the fantasy of the story would appeal to younger viewer’s, it’s actually quite bloody. There is a great deal of murder, and more than scene of animal mutilation for divination purposes. While far from graphic, the violence helps set a decidedly adult tone for the film. The growing relationship between the star and Tristan is sweet and tender, but a tad too precious for most kids to handle I think. Claire Danes does a passable job of making the character more and more likable the more time she spends with humans and the conceit of having her physically glow when she feels happy (or in love) is both less treacly and more endearing than it sounds. Charlie Cox does an excellent job as the initially bumbling but ultimately heroic Tristan and Michelle Pfeiffer was a thoroughly convincing witch. There are a number of neat little cameos and small parts that both annoyed and amused me.

What the movie may lack in tight plotting it makes up for with wide-eyed wonder and enchantment.

Other Friday Nights at the Movies:

Harry Potter



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