Stardust Review

Dir: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mark Strong
Run. Time: 130 mins

Stardust chronicles the quest of a young man named Tristan Thorn as he enters a fabled land to obtain a fallen star and bring it back to the object of his affections, only to discover that the star is something quite more than an interesting piece of rock. On his way he meets many strange and exciting characters all wrapped up in his journey somehow. Through his adventure he finally matures from a country boy to a great man.

Stardust is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, which I must confess I have never read. Gaiman’s previous fantasy work (principally the Sandman series) has been fantastic and has a knack for looking at many fantasy staples in new ways whilst being built on superb characterisation. The film doesn’t have quite the same feel as Gaiman’s other work, seeming a little more grounded but thankfully an equally wicked, if markedly different, sense of humour remains. The comedy is what forms the backbone of the film, sharing equal emphasis with the fantasy elements. This unashamed comedic approach makes Stardust stand out and seem fresh in a market saturated with Lord of the Rings clones. This take has been seen before in the classic The Princess Bride, but Stardust has an even more unusual source material and pushes the boundaries further with the comedy, drawing more from the characters themselves than satirising the genre. Importantly, the humour actually works. Coupled with this the film does have a genuinely epic feel as the paths of the different characters collide although some of the wide, seeping shots do seem a little forced in a film so focused on its characters. The story plays out quite well with the requisite reveals suitably unexpected and unrelenting build to the climax present. The film starts quite slowly but soon the laughs come flooding out and there are some truly inspired moments played purely for comedy, with a particular mention to the ghosts of a certain number of princes hanging about until the right of succession is sorted between their remaining murderous siblings. That such an inspired premise is played for laughs gives the entire film an undeniable charm and heightens the enjoyment somewhat. Stardust really is one of the funniest films I’ve seen all year and that humour is carried entirely by the cast.

Charlie Cox is brilliant as our young hero conveying charm and wit and making the transition from bumbling shop boy to dashing hero both natural and totally believable. . His on-screen chemistry with Claire Danes is absolutely tangible and every time the two have the screen to themselves you’re entirely engrossed. Danes, herself, is adorable as the fallen star, striking just the right chord between sweet and sassy. The changing nature of their relationship plays out beautifully as well. The supporting cast is terrific, featuring a revelatory performance from De Niro, as Captain Shakespeare, a lightning pirate, a nicely menacing turn from Mark Strong as the ruthless Septimus, and an honourable and honest display from Michelle Pfeiffer as a witch clinging to her youth (although Pfeiffer still looks stunning). Cameos from pillars of British comedy help elevate the film to even higher levels as even the throwaway gags are delivered impeccably and I can’t remember any glaring misses in the humour.

The Special Effects are very impressive and importantly subdued. Those elements rendered with CGI are almost all inanimate objects with some beautiful art design as well as some magic effects, but green-screen is used sensibly and there are no distracting fights with poorly rendered monsters and suspension of disbelief is never broken. The team really did an excellent job and everything seems to come together quite beautifully. The soundtrack is unspectacular but conveys all of the emotion necessary in the film: tenderness, tension, fear as well as being riveting during the action sequences. The pacing is excellent and the film is just about exactly the right length and fits a lot in without seeming rushed.

The film is not without its problems. Some of the characterisation in the first act seems a little odd and all but disappears without explanation in the latter part of the film. There are a couple of noticeable “deus ex machina” moments and some parts where the action, or inaction, of characters is a bit puzzling. There are also some structural problems. Again, the first act never feels as if its characters’ paths are truly running parallel and there is a lot of expository speech contained within the narration, which often feels like a rather cheap method of storytelling, even for this particular genre, although Ian McKellen’s voice is well-suited to the role. Finally, there’s one particular scene towards the end that seems very out of place. Most of the death in the film is treated comically, which keeps everything fun, and this one is meant to be as well but, to me, it felt unnecessarily cruel in its attempt to amuse and just ended up being a bit unsettling and jarring the flow of the film.

These flaws are minor when compared with the triumph of the rest of the film. What has been crafted here is a delightful piece of cinema with a great sense of humour and a resounding feeling of fun in an age where family films are either very serious or misunderstand what it means to appeal to the entire audience. By taking this approach Stardust sets itself apart and Matthew Vaughn has proven that he has skills beyond the gangster genre. You will definitely haves some unashamed, old school fun at the cinema with Stardust, without the slightest feeling of being dated.

Originally posted Friday, 7 December 2007.

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