What Stardust wields in star power, it lacks in original, or even interesting, storytelling. Adapted for the screen by Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn, Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel sloshes around onscreen like a blender full of leftovers from Tolkien, the Brothers Grimm, and Shakespeare.
The focus would be Tristan (Charlie Cox), who seeks a fallen star to win the heart of the village hottie, Victoria (Sienna Miller). It’s never clear why he’s in love with this flagrant golddigger, and she prefers the bland but rich Humphrey (Henry Cavill), who effectively woos her with the promise of a ginormous diamond ring. Nevertheless, Tristan toasts his wished-for love with champagne (a luxury that costs him a week’s wages) and sets off to bring her a piece of the star from across the wall that separates the 19th-century British village of Well from a magical parallel world called Stormhold. That Victoria wants her star before her birthday, just one week away, makes her seem demanding. That Tristan blazes a trail towards Stormhold (and certain death) just to please her makes him stupid.
Almost right away he uses up most of a Babylon Candle, which magically transports its owner to any place he envisions. It’s significant that he sacrifices the candle for Victoria, because it’s a last gift from his mother, the only thing she left for him, tucked in his blanky on his father’s doorstep before she was enslaved by a witch (read: Tristan’s a Mommy’s boy with no Mommy). The candle takes him to Yvaine (Claire Danes), a persnickety blonde in a shimmery dress laid out in the center of the star’s crater. She explains that though she was once a star in the sky, her form on Earth is that of a woman, now injured from her fall. Tristan drags Yvaine back to Well against her will. What’s a little kidnapping in the name of true love?
It turns out that others would like to have hold of the fallen star as well. Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer) is one of three witchy sisters who can restore their youth and beauty if they jointly ingest the star’s heart while it’s aglow. Lamia ventures alone to capture Yvaine, but her determination is less terrifying than pathetic. Chasing down Yvaine across Stormhold seems a lot of trouble to go through for a facelift. Still, Lamia’s pursuit brings to Tristan’s effort a constant mortal danger and—oh yes—lots of special effects.
Tristan and Yvaine must also evade the power-hungry heir to Stormhold, Prince Septimus (Mark Strong), who just can’t wait to be king. Of course there’s a catch: on his deathbed, Septimus’ father (Peter O’Toole) explains that the only true heir is one who can recover and restore his ruby necklace, which he then throws out the window, up to the heavens, where it lands around Yvaine’s neck. Even once it’s revealed to all that Septimus wants the necklace and not Yvaine herself, she continues to wear the big target. It’s just so big and shiny, and it goes with her dress.
Even though it appears that everyone wants a piece of her, Yvaine remains staunchly unsympathetic, even when at last she stops complaining and falls in love. This shrew’s taming seems owed to Captain Shakespeare (Robert Deniro), a gay pirate who must remain in the closet to maintain the respect of his crew and ruthless reputation. DeNiro’s portrayal of a character so ripe for complexity is sadly (and frankly, shockingly) reduced to stereotype: limp-wristed, lisping, and dancing in drag, the Captain uses his queer eye to give straight guy Tristan a manly makeover.
Stardust is thus a kind of “fairy tale,” but it is also lazy and often offensive. Like Snow White or Cinderella, it shamelessly reinforces physical beauty as the only kind of acceptable measure of a girl’s worth, its grandiose CGI and contemporary jokes never challenging the genre’s well-known sexism. Women are either ugly and manipulative or pretty and pliable, while men do their best to protect and/or woo them. When Yvaine, left tied to a tree by Tristan (why she cannot simply untie herself is never explained), is finally rescued by a unicorn, she clutches its phallic horn to ride her way safety, all bareback and breathless and boring.