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Stardust (2007)

by on 2012/02/28

“So you don’t fit with the popular crowd.
Now, I take that as a very good omen.”

* * * *

“Neil Gaiman?” I shouted at the screen incredulously. Somehow, in hearing of this movie, buying the video, and reading the blurb on the back, I never discovered his credit or involvement. Only when the titles rolled did his name catch me by surprise.

I should note a part of me idolizes him. He wrote (or co-wrote) Coraline, Good Omens, and the various Sandman comics. He’s friends with Tori Amos, and he’s got his “aging hipster” vibe down pat. I was fortunate to meet him 25 years ago, in a comic shop in Toronto, where he gruffly signed an early non-fiction paperback, Don’t Panic.

I sincerely hope Mr. Gaiman would not be offended by this review reading like Excalibur’s, a litany of complaints followed up by a “more than the sum of its parts” Hail Mary. My being (as yet) unfamiliar with his originating novel, I don’t know for sure where to focus my blame and praise.

Critical victim notwithstanding, I’ll continue with a summary of Stardust. Endearingly awkward, illegitimate young man, Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) is in love with a local girl. Unfortunately, everyone except for him understands she’s not “the one”. On a whim, he resolves to bring her the star which, together, they watch fall to the earth one night. It leads him past a mysterious wall on the outskirts of their town.

As he crosses, he enters Stormhold, a land both familiar and not. It resembles our world in medieval times, however magic is not just possible, but common. In his quest for the star, he hunts and is hunted, finds many fantastic things, and discovers a transformative secret from his own past.

It’s difficult not to be entranced by this world. As usual, I found myself starstruck (ha!). Ian McKellen (The Golden Compass) won me over with his narration. So did Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian) as Tristan’s young father. Peter O’Toole seems to be reprising his role from The Lion in Winter. Claire Danes (Romeo + Juliet), Robert De Niro (Everybody’s Fine), Ricky Gervais (The Office), and Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns) all appear in memorable roles.

It may sound like criticism — or a backhanded compliment — for me to suggest Stardust tipped its hat to several high fantasies. Which is not to say it poaches or becomes unoriginal. I spotted numerous possible references, including The Chronicles of Narnia, It’s a Wonderful Life, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Princess Bride, and even a central theme of Highlander, whether immortality without true love is, in fact, a curse.

Sadly, it lags a bit as we approach the midsection, feeling overlong and padded. Ironically, the lag wasn’t due to my being bored very often. I actually thought there may have been too many “peaks”. I longed to see a different cut, with one of the subplots removed, involving the spirits of royalty killed off. Their presence served an ineffectual humour, awakening old Frighteners nightmares.

I’d also have been more enthused if the craft had matched its fictive grandeur. Unconvincing compositing, and some mismatched edits distracted.

But the most significant issue of all was that certain characters fared worse than their fellows. Nearly to a one, the females were either vicious or victims: Yvaine (Danes) is surly most of the time; Victoria (Sienna Miller) is an exploitative tease; Ditchwater Sal (Melanie Hill) is a trailer park grade witch; Una (Kate Magowan) is a slave; Lamia (Pfeiffer) is sometimes outwardly ugly, and always so inside. A boy (Jake Curran) is played for punishing humour by being turned into a woman. And an openly gay male is caricatured as a flamboyant hair-dressing fashionista.

Yes, I’ll admit, I responded to the jokes, though a vague unease persisted.

Still, in this experience, imagination prevailed, despite a less than (ahem) stellar execution. Stardust’s reach might well surpass its own grasp, but it’s as original as it is aware of its influences, surely a difficult compromise to manage. Nonetheless, it succeeds, its strengths more than able to offset — or distract from — all of its flaws.

Now, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman’s scrawl, it is time for me to panic.

* * * *

Rated PG13

128 minutes

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