Where and when, exactly, did Neil Gaiman earn all his geek love credentials? It’s safe to say that, outside the insular realm of select comic book purists (a mighty force, for sure), his name barely garners a blip among mainstream media hawks. Yet his has always been a presence burbling around the pop culture surface — a well received British miniseries here, a couple of sold scripts to Hollywood there. Granted, there is no denying the impact of his Sandman series among graphic novel enthusiasts, and the remainder of his writings (prose, pen and ink, etc.) have only increased his formidable fanbase. Still, when did he become the oft-cited ‘next big thing’, and why would any studio risk their potential summer blockbuster dollars on a basically unproven act. Unfortunately, there’s no clear response from the late in the season release, Stardust.
As a flawed fractured fairy tale, this only average film sputters when it should soar. It saves up its best material for the final act confrontation between good and evil, and then never once doubts the outcome. As fantasy, it’s flimsy, simply regurgitating ideas and elements from past familiar fables. This would be fine if Gaiman, via screenwriters Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, had anything novel or quirky to add to the genre. But instead, he’s more serious than satiric, dishing out ‘dead clever’ conceits like they’re sweets at an orphanage. We’re supposed to grin at the ghostly visages of the King’s dead sons, each still wearing the manner of their demise. When the fabled three witches discover a new source of their much coveted immortality, we’re supposed to giggle at their glamour gal antics. From a scene stealing sequence of gay pirating (more on this in a moment) to a token take on honor and valor, Stardust wants you to leave happy, ever after. In this case, we’re only mildly amused.
It all starts with a stunted hero, the head over heels in obsession Tristan (Charlie Cox), who determines that he will bring a recent fallen star back to the object of his affection — in this case, the Renaissance fair version of a Hilton sister. When he makes it over “THE WALL” — the ancestral dividing line between his world and the kingdom of Stormhold (don’t ask) — he discovers that the celestial body has transformed into a maiden, the ineffectually ephemeral Yvaine (Claire Danes). Also interested in this newly arrived entity are the three witches Mormo, Empusa, and head heavy, Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer). By eating her heart, they can live forever. In addition, the remaining sons of the King (Peter O’Toole) are after a rare gem that will guide the next heir to the throne. Turns out, Yvaine has that too. So it’s an ersatz-epic journey across picturesque Scottish landscapes to save the ‘luminary’, find the stone, and keep the wicked wenches at bay.
With its A-list cast and big budget support, there’s no real reason for Stardust to slump so. After all, if you can’t make Michelle Pfieffer in full craggy cackle mode resonate as pure evil, or a coy Claire Danes radiate with ethereal beauty, there is something wrong with your vision. Part of the problem is obviously Gaiman. He’s cribbing from William Goldman (The Princess Bride) and some lesser sword and sorcery efforts (Stardust frequently feels like Krull combined with the worst elements of George Lucas’ labored Willow) to brace his otherwise stiff English lip. And to think — director Matthew Vaughn (responsible for the heralded Brit crime flick Layer Cake) actually turned down a chance to helm X-Men: The Last Stand to make this movie. True, that eventual Brett Ratner washout wasn’t the greatest example of the super hero genre, but it was far more effective at what it was trying to accomplish than this worn out whimsy.
Vaughn does swing for the rafters, hoping to earn some crowd pleasing points by featuring former Method mob man Robert DeNiro as the gayest buccaneer in the profitable lightning procurement trade. Putting on a macho façade for his typical tough guy crew, he secretly fancies hairdressing, tea parties, and his closet full of fancy dresses. Whether he’s swishing or swashbuckling (and sometimes, both), Scorsese’s go to guy is a sly setpiece stunt, a way of taking the audience’s mind off the previous hour of meandering Magic: The Blathering. He goes over like gangbusters, and it’s within these winning moments that we see the movie Stardust could have been. Mixing genres and tones is never a solid foundation for a film, and it requires a director of deft designs to find the mystical interconnections to make it all gel flawlessly. Vaughn is not quite in that vaunted league. He still thinks swordplay should be shot with one eye on the editing room, the other on the action.
Once De Niro disappears, Stardust cruises on his glorified gimmickry for quite a while. We get the standard “will they kiss” romantic rehash, the transformation of our lead from dork to debonair (thanks to his prissy pirate pal), and a couple of massive logic leaps (it takes Pfieffer’s witch 75 minutes to find our heroes, yet only one jump cut to immediately return to her castle?). During the aforementioned finale, something metaphysically surreal and outside the film occurs. When a special power makes its last act presence known, the viewer’s mind begins asking a simple question — why didn’t they do that before. Like clockwork, the movie steps up and anticipates this charge, delivering an explanation before moving on. Maybe Vaughn thought that was clever. Maybe it’s a jaundice critical eye looking carefully for all the plot holes. Yet it indicates the kind of slapdash feel that Stardust is steeped in. Unlike other, better examples of the fantasy film, the narrative feels more or less made up on the spot.
And this is perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome in any work of “once upon a time.” In most instances, an audience either buys into the premise or they don’t. They follow your invented logic and brand new legends or they’re lost, never to willingly return to the shores of this daydream nation. With other examples in the entertainment arena — Neverwhere, the Henson Company’s clever Mirrormask — it’s clear that Gaiman will be a fixture in film for sometime to come. Yet it’s his future productions that will most likely leave an imprint. Stardust, however, makes the major mistake of substituting weakness for the wistful. There are parts of this film that actually try to fly. The vast majority though is grounded in a level of labored levity that never provides the wings — or the wherewithal — to get airborne.