Dir: Matthew Vaughn. US-UK. 2007. 125mins.
A fairy tale based on Neil Gaiman's four-part DC Comics book from 1997, Stardust is an ambitious high-concept adventure which is one of the few non-sequels, non-toy or non-TV adaptations to arrive in theatres this summer. But although entertaining, ribald and clever, it might fall through the cracks when it comes to capturing a broad blockbuster audience a la Simpsons or Transformers.
British director Matthew Vaughn has certainly crafted an energetic, handsome film, but it's a tough sell. On the one hand, it's a romance for teenage girls with a handsome leading man in Charlie Cox and a feisty lead female character played by Claire Danes; on the other hand, it's a comic adventure for nerdy comic-loving teenage boys along the lines of classic Gilliam like Time Bandits and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen.
Whether the girls will respond to the adventure and the boys to the romance is questionable, and both might think it looks old-fashioned and uncool next to Transformers or Harry Potter, especially with its particular strain of British humour. Likewise it's not a sure thing for smaller children, who prefer the more simple, less smart-ass mythology of Narnia, while adults might think it looks too childish to commit to sans kids.
The film will certainly win over audiences once they are in the theatre, but getting them in will be the key challenge for Paramount, which only has the ageing star names of Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro to rely on as marketing bait.
If initial theatrical prospects look middling, Stardust's long-term prospects as a popular TV and DVD title are much stronger. Like other comic adventures such as Time Bandits and The Princess Bride, the film looks more likely to mature with age and win a significant following over the next few years
Vaughn demonstrates considerable skill in telling the grand story, set in an indeterminate era in the past in both a rural English village called Wall and the fantastical realm of Stormhold which it borders. He manages to render his new dimension with a sense of wonder, without losing focus on his characters' human dimensions - a task which was clearly beyond George Lucas in his recent Star Wars trilogy or Stefen Fangmeier in his lame Eragon last year.
A prologue follows young Dunstan Thorne (Ben Barnes, who will be seen as Prince Caspian in the next Chronicles Of Narnia film) as he ventures from the village of Wall into Stormhold and has a one-night stand with a beautiful girl called Una (Kate Magowan) who is chained to service of her witch mistress Ditchwater Sal (Melanie Hill). Nine months later, Dunstan finds a baby on his doorstep from Una whom she has named Tristan.
The film skips forward and Tristan Thorne (Cox) is now a young man struggling to overcome his lowly status as a shopboy and consummate his desire for the stuck-up village beauty Victoria (Miller). While he is on a picnic trying to woo her, the two witness a star falling from the sky into Stormhold and Tristan promises that he will enter the other realm and bring her the star within a week.
What he doesn't realise is that the star has fallen as a direct result of a locket thrust from the hand of Stormhold's dying king (O'Toole). The king has issued a challenge to his four sons (Strong, Everett, Flemying among them) that whoever finds the locket shall be his successor to the throne. Meanwhile, the powerful witch Lamia (Pfeiffer) and her two sisters see the star fall and vow to capture it as a means to achieve eternal youth.
Thanks to a magical candle left him by his mother, Tristan arrives first at the crater where the star has fallen and discovers that the star is personified as a headstrong young woman called Yvaine (Danes) wearing the locket around her neck. He immediately sets out to escort her back to Wall to present to Victoria.
The journey is fraught with peril as the last surviving son Septimus (Strong) and Lamia both pursue the star for their own benefit. Along the way, of course, Tristan and Yvaine fall in love and they are aided in their quest by the captain of a flying pirate ship (played by De Niro) who is cutthroat in front of his crew but a mincing gay cross-dresser in the privacy of his own cabin.
At 125 minutes, the film has one too many twist and turn in its meandering journey to the climax at the witches' palace; some asides, like the tiresome cameo from Ricky Gervais, could easily have been lost in favour of a more breakneck pace.
Cox, no stranger to costume drama from supporting roles in The Merchant Of Venice and Casanova, is a spirited, likeable leading man and there are many pleasurable turns in the large supporting cast, notably by Pfeiffer who has enormous fun with her youth-obsessed wicked witch.
Less successful is the casting of Danes, too domineering and whiny as the star, and De Niro whose vaguely offensive gay pirate is a misjudged diversion into cheap laugh-getting.
The film is visually impressive, all the more so for its use of rolling hills and bleak landscapes in Iceland and the isle of Skye.
Ingenious Film Partners
Lorenzo Di Bonaventura
Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess
Robert De Niro