By Vic Holtreman
Short version: The “Pirates” crowd will probably love Stardust, but if you’re expecting something like the just about perfect The Princess Bride you’ll be disappointed.
Stardust tries to be a newer version of The Princess Bride, and while exceeding that film by far in special effects, it lacks almost any of it’s charm or humor. That’s really too bad because both the very beginning and the very end of the movie are pretty good. Unfortunately what’s in between – while pretty to look at, left me feeling quite empty. I understand that this story is based on both graphic and text-only novels by Neil Gaiman. I’ve never read either and for all I know they may be excellent but any excellence was left between the pages of those books.
At the start of the film we learn of a mystical land outside the borders of a town called Wall in England. For hundreds of years a gap in this wall has been guarded, allowing no one to pass through to this unknown land. Now right off the bat I was scratching my head… the wall is only about six feet high and there’s an old man whose spent his life guarding a six foot wide gap in the wall. If the wall has been around for hundreds of years and it’s that important to not go beyond it, why isn’t it taller? And a gap in the wall for all that time? Couldn’t someone have fixed it?
Anyway, we meet a young man who has the spark in his eyes of a fellow who wants to seek adventure. He makes it past the guard and discovers a town a bit beyond the wall full of wondrous things. There he meets a young woman who it turns out is a princess enslaved by a witch who can only attain freedom once the witch dies. They have a brief tryst and 9 months later a baby shows up at his door.
The film then jumps to 18 years later and we meet the young man’s son Tristan (Charlie Cox). Tristan is infatuated with who we can only assume to be the prettiest girl in the village of Wall, and he is desperate to win her affection. Unfortunately her boyfriend is a guy who is a pompous and well-off fellow who can handle a sword, while Tristan works in the local shop and doesn’t have much skill or style. She’s really beyond his reach, as much by her station as by her own choice, and there lies the first problem with this movie: Our first reaction to the eventual hero of the story is that he’s a schmuck.
Tristan is beside himself trying to come up with ways to win her heart, and finally promises to bring her back the remains of a shooting star they see one night. The catch is that he has to bring it back within one week, since her beau is going to propose to her then. Instead of telling her to pound sand, off he goes, eventually finding that the star come to earth is the beautiful Yvaine (Claire Danes). Yvaine is in danger from not only the three most powerful witches in the land (including the still gorgeous at 49 Michelle Pfieffer) but the princes of the kingdom who must retrieve a jewel from her in order to become king.
At first Tristan and Yvaine do not hit it off at all, but it’s a foregone conclusion that they will fall in love by the end of the story. Their journey to Wall is quite an adventure, complete with encounters with Lamia, the witch who wants to cut out Yvaine’s heart to regain her and her sisters’ youth, being chased by the princes and a trip on a flying pirate ship run by Captain Shakespeare (no I’m not making that up). The captain of the ship is played by Robert Deniro, and if you ever plan on seeing any of his older films where he plays his typical tough guy self, you’d better rent those before you see him in Stardust.
Sure, the special effects are dazzling but there were instances where it was so obviously CGI that I was really surprised. When one of the peasants is turned from a man into a woman and the camera focused on his chest turning into breasts, I could swear I’d seen better transition effects in TV commercials. There was a lot of eye candy as far as cool stuff on the screen, but once again, a lot of it seemed to look like it was out of a video game trailer.
Then we have the two lead characters, Tristan and Yvaine – for most of the film they were completely bland. No spark, no engaging personality. I found myself wishing that the movie had continued with the young man who played Tristan’s father at a young age (Ben Barnes) and the princess (Kate Magowan) instead of these two. Finally, towards the very end of the film the character of Charlie Cox as Tristan gets interesting and a bit of charisma, but it took far too long. And as for Claire Danes? She just didn’t do anything for me as an ethereal character fallen from the sky. Sure, she’s pretty and her lines were written to give her more depth than the girl Tristan was infatuated with, but for the most part she didn’t come across much better.
It wasn’t awful, but for most of it I didn’t care how it would end. Having said that, the film does redeem itself somewhat towards the last 15 minutes or so, but it’s certainly not great all the way through.
Go buy yourself a copy of The Princess Bride instead. You’ll thank me in the end.