August 20, 2007

A Star and Her Boy

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In an era when movie pitches and reviews hinge on pith, the most concise description of Stardust just may have come from its director, Matthew Vaughn. He describes Stardust as Midnight Run crossed with The Princess Bride. Having seen only the latter of the two (I’m a bad film critic, I know, and I apologize) I’m not in a position to discuss the accuracy of that comparison. I can say, though, that just as Jane Goldman is not nearly as talented as the screenwriter William Goldman, Stardust is no Princess Bride. For one, it doesn’t revel in the same sense of whimsy as that great movie, nor is it nearly as good.
Charlie Cox, as our hero, Tristan, is believably pigheaded and dead-set on bringing a fallen star (Claire Danes, delightfully grumpy and credibly British) back to his hometown of Wall as a present for his beautiful, not-quite requited love Victoria (Sienna Miller, credibly beautiful though little else). To complicate matters, the star is also being chased by a pair of princes and a trio of witches. There are plenty of trials and travails along the way which I won’t give away, but they do land on a flying pirate ship for a while in the charge of Captain Shakespeare (Robert DeNiro, casually munching on the scenery). One would think that a movie with anthropomorphized stars, flying pirate ships and a peanut gallery made up of dead princes would at least be, whatever its faults, novel.
The disappointment of Stardust is its adherence to the conventions of both fantasy and action films. It took Neil Gaiman’s strange and slightly wonderful book and smoothed out its edges and kinks into a far more typical film. Some of these changes are necessary in changing a book to a movie, especially one as quirky as Stardust. However, as it cuts out excess material it also manages to truncate large portions of the best sections of the book.
Because of these changes, the movie shifts from a quirky novel to a generic action-fantasy film with only some of its original oddity intact, a disappointing loss. Some of the books best quirks are unnecessarily removed and interesting characters in the book suddenly become rather bland, except the newly added Captain Shakespeare. His introduction is one of the few positive amendments because if he had not been created then we would never have seen DeNiro in a performance so enthusiastic and deft that you almost miss the high-wire act he pulls off. The only other big “name” with more screen time is Michelle Pfeiffer, who is fine but doesn’t produce similar delight and uproar.
On film, the fantastic is most convincingly conveyed when its oddities slip by unacknowledged. This is a movie that does not show miracles nonchalantly but slows down and zooms in whenever there’s something extra cool we ought to see. At one point in the movie a character creates an inn out of thin air. Undoubtedly, that’s pretty nifty. But it would have been an even better bit of magic if the camera had not glided in and around the beams and walls forming to show us just how it’s done.
The thing is, we don’t care. Ostentatious displays put the audience at a remove, marveling at the effects rather than getting involved in the story. The filmmaker’s challenge is to “show rather than tell.” Matthew Vaughn does both repeatedly, which is tiring and, ultimately, obnoxious. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the film is visually breathtaking, seamlessly integrating the fantastic with the mundane.
Unlike its source, which doesn’t end so much as slow down until it stops, Stardust doesn’t meander, but rather stampedes forward into a big showdown with explosions and swordplay aplenty. At the end of the movie, when everyone converges to have it out in a final brawl, I realized what bothered me about the movie.
While it had some interesting trappings and arresting visuals, while watching its diligent adherence to the strictures of adventure films, I couldn’t help but think that I’d seen it all before.