Ever since producing close friend Guy Ritchie’s small but successful heist film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998, Matthew Vaughn’s career has taken some unpredictable turns. After producing two more of Ritchie’s films, Vaughn ventured into directing with 2004’s Layer Cake, a complex and stylish film that was a relatively fresh take on the British crime genre that he had previously dealt with. While he had proved to be a successful filmmaker on his own, it was surprising to say the least when he was hired to direct the third entry in the big-budget X-Men film series.
It was an even bigger surprise when after leaving the project due to family issues, his next project was announced to be an adaptation of author Neil Gaiman’s 1998 fantasy novel Stardust. With Gaiman’s blessing, the script written by Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman compresses and streamlines much of the novel’s lengthy and dark material into an accessible film with a greater emphasis on humor and whimsy. Unlike typical fantasy productions which are often bloated and overreaching in their epic scale, Stardust is a refreshingly original modern fairy tale with a personality all to its own.
The story begins in the small English village of Wall, where there lies a guarded stone wall that acts as a border between the town and the magical world of Stormhold. While on his deathbed, the king of Stormhold (Peter O’Toole) throws a ruby into the sky, stating that the first of his sons to recover the gem will be declared king. When the gem causes a star named Yvaine (Claire Danes) to fall with it, the young and awkward Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox) from Wall vows to retrieve it for his unrequited love, Victoria (Sienna Miller). When Tristan finds the beautiful fallen Yvaine, he chains her in order to bring her back to Victoria.
At the same time, the king’s remaining sons Primus (Jason Flemying) and Septimus (Mark Strong) competitively seek the ruby, while three witches led by the evil Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) intend on capturing Yvaine and eating her heart in order to restore their youth and strengthen their magical powers. Along the journey Tristan and Yvaine push and pull as they develop feelings for each other. They also meet an assortment of interesting characters like Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), an infamous sky pirate known for his viciousness, who in reality is a kind, cultured, and effeminate man.
For a film that cost around $70 million, the filmmakers were able to make Stardust look like it cost double that. The gorgeous and sprawling British landscapes they filmed at ground the production in reality, while the CGI choices are efficient and carefully applied so as to make the film look magical in a way that truly seduces you into the world. What works really well in the film is the dynamic chemistry between Cox and Danes, whose banter and romance is simply charming. Pfeiffer, Strong, and De Niro deliver terrific supporting performances in their respective roles, while notable British actors like Ricky Gervais, Mark Heap, Rupert Everett, and David Walliams offer their comedic talents to an already excellent cast.
What can be frustrating at times, however, is when the plot sags and the excess of characters slows down the film. The last act in particular doesn’t deliver completely on the buildup gathered throughout the film. Nonetheless, intuitive action scenes, a witty screenplay, and a solid ensemble cast should have gotten the film more notice compared to other films in the genre. While it doesn’t have the name or brand recognition that other fantasy adventures boast, Stardust and its earnest storytelling is endearing in ways most blockbusters can’t touch.
For diehard fans of the film or those looking to check it out for the first time, the new Blu-ray high definition transfer is the way to see it. It looks fantastic in 1080p and it has enough good new features to suggest an upgrade for those that already own the DVD. The previously released bonus features include a trailer, deleted scenes, and a hilarious blooper reel. Exclusive to this disc is a commentary by Vaughn and Goldman, a comprehensive HD featurette entitled “Crossing the Wall: The Making of Stardust” which includes interviews with the cast and crew, and a brief featurette entitled “Nothing Is True…” which follows Gaiman around the set of the film.