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Stardust has real 'star' power

If there's anything more annoying than the real world, it's a badly-done fantasy world.

Things glowing for no reason, people parting their lips and looking in awe at magical castles, kindly sprites with no concept of evil--when things are designed to be enchanting and fanciful, they make you just want to murder a benevolent king and enslave everything in sight.

"Stardust" the book was written by Neil Gaiman, though, and when Gaiman writes about fairy tales and fantasy-lands, they're the dark and frequently disturbing kind. If he were to tell the Cinderella story, not only would it be the version where the wicked stepsisters chop off their own heels and toes to fit into the glass slipper, but they would probably end up getting baked into a pie that may or may not contain blackbirds.

In "Stardust" the movie, written by Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn, Charlie Cox is a lovestruck shopboy, and shopboys don't wow the ladies like dashing young fops with swords and real mustaches. In order to win over the girl who's dismissed him as beneath her, Cox promises to bring her the shooting star they see on a midnight picnic.

The only problem is the star fell on the other side of a wall that leads to another world. Also, the wall's guarded, and in that other world shooting stars aren't globs of dirt and metal, they're Claire Danes. As Cox sets out to fetch the star, she's pursued by a band of princes and a group of witches (led by Michelle Pfeiffer) after the power Danes can grant them.

It's a lot to absorb, but all that plot's kept hopping by a perverse sense of humor you don't usually see in a movie that's been partially marketed at kids.

For instance, if you took a pop quiz, and one of the questions was "Princes being encouraged to kill each other by their father is a) always hilarious, b) potentially funny if handled right, or c) there's nothing funny about violence under any circumstances," and you answered c), you probably would not enjoy a lot of "Stardust." (And if you answered a), hi, my roommate.)

But it's the dark humor and gruesome moments that prevent the movie from getting too cloying or wrapped up in how awesome all its chases and effects are, which would be pretty easy to do when a movie's this damn fun.

The cast doesn't overplay it, either--even Danes. Good taste seems to have ruled against her as an actress, but she brings a subtle unearthliness to her role as a star-turned-woman. So take that, good taste; go sulk about how awful the "Mod Squad" was or something.

The story does briefly lose track of itself around the time Robert De Niro's flying pirate shows up. It's hard to complain, however, when one of the world's greatest actors is stealing the scene as a crazy-funny, Oscar-Wilde's-cousin-type sky-bandit.

Really, "Stardust" could stand as a case study of a movie's strengths outweighing its flaws. Yeah, it's muddled here and there, but when the plot coasts it's usually because something hilarious is going on. Sure, lots of its slightly-too-happy conclusion is telegraphed within the first five minutes, but the way it reaches that conclusion is far from predictable. And okay, yes, there's a lot of weighty talk about true love, but there's enough honest insight into the difference between real-world love and fairy-tale love to keep even the monologues interesting.

That's no small feat. Neither is making a movie this exciting and uncompromised. Some works are better for being a little messy, and "Stardust" is one of them.

Grade: A-

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