Monday, August 13, 2007


I was surprised not to see any kids at the crowded weekend afternoon screening where I saw Stardust. This neo-classic fantasy seems tailor-made for tweens – in fact, director Matthew Vaughn says he did it partly to make a movie that his kids could enjoy. But maybe a sweet, old-fashioned romantic fantasy is just too uncoolly sincere for the PG-13 crowd.

Vaughn started his career as a producer on Guy Ritchie’s briefly trendy hard-guy caper films, and he must have learned a lot behind the camera. The first feature he directed was Layer Cake, an elegantly assured double-cross story. With Stardust, his second film as director, he’s pulled off another pleasant surprise, adapting a novel by comic book artist Neil Gaiman into a sweet escapist fantasy.

We’re in familiar territory from the start in this meta-fairy tale, which Vaughn calls a combination of The Princess Bride and Midnight Run. The setting is a small town surrounded by a stone wall in an idealized version of Victorian England – and, in time-honored fairy tale fashion – the magic land that lies hidden on the other side of the wall.

The story more or less begins when a young man named Tristran (a blandly handsome Charlie Cox) enters that world, as his father did one night before he was born. Tristran is looking for the falling star he promised to bring back to Victoria, the flirty, flinty town beauty (Sienna Miller), but instead, of course, he finds things he was never looking for. As the plummy narration by Ian McKellen informs us, this will be a story about how Tristran became a man and won “the heart of his one true love.”

There’s barely a surprise or a moment of genuine wonder in what follows and yet, once it’s had a chance to tune up, it works, sounding that reassuring note of inevitability that resonates in all good fairy tales. But first we have to get past some rough spots, including the twee staginess of the magical market town that Tristran’s father visits and a stiff performance by Kate Magowan as Una, the captured princess he encounters there.

Even Tristran’s story takes a little while to get moving, mainly because Claire Danes as Yvaine, the fallen star come to ground as a cranky beauty, is a black hole of charmlessness at first and Cox doesn’t have enough charisma to carry those scenes on his own. Yvaine is supposed to be the soulful antidote to the narcissistic Victoria, and eventually you buy it, as the actress’ stubborn integrity grows on you. For her first few minutes of screen time, though, she leans so hard on Yvaine’s peevish discomfort that she threatens to become just another pill.

But no warm-up is needed for most of the excellent supporting cast. Peter O’Toole grins craftily from his deathbed, the self-satisfied king of the magic world. Rupert Everett and a flour-white lineup of less famous but equally adept actors make for a high-class peanut gallery as the king’s heirs, who keep killing one another to clear the way to the throne -- and then stick around like a ghostly Greek chorus. And Ricky Gervais of the original The Office is wonderfully slippery as a fast-talking fence.

Best of all are Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro. Pfeiffer plays Lamia, an ancient witch bent on regaining her lost youth and beauty by eating Yvain’s heart. Whether she’s gazing in glee at her own gorgeous gams after temporarily regaining her looks, recoiling in disgust as her age spots begin to return, or erupting in murderous fury when she is defied, Pfeiffer’s Lamia is a juicy caricature of a woman used to using her looks to get what she wants -- and an only slightly more monstrous version of the tyrannical aging beauty queen Pfeiffer plays in this year’s Hairspray. Pfeiffer is awfully young and gorgeous to be playing late-Joan-Crawford-type aging harridans, but if that’s what Hollywood’s offering her, at least I’m glad she’s having fun with them.

The middle-aged male actor’s version of playing a shrew seems to be doing comic versions of one’s youthful persona. In movies like Analyze This and Meet the Parents, De Niro has been spoofing all those tough guys he's played, and it looks like he’s enjoying himself too. This time around, he plays the captain of a flying pirate ship, a tough-talking showboat with a secret of his own.

If De Niro’s captain and ship remind you a bit of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and his beloved Black Pearl, it doesn’t look as if Stardust is going to burn half as hot as the Pirates of the Caribbean series. I like it much more, though. Both are kitchen-sink fantasies, throwing in elements from all kinds of fantasy genres, but the Pirates movies feel too frantic to me, piling on the special effects and the gimmicks as if to distract you from the thinness of the plot. Stardust keeps things much more low-tech, and the pace is less frenetic; Even the inevitable chase scene is a low-key, CG-free affair, with everyone either on foot or in a horse-drawn carriage.

Stardust keeps its feet on the ground too, moving at a nice clip without ever spinning out of control. In the end, there’s nothing transcendent about this old-fashioned fairy tale, but it makes for a satisfying afternoon’s entertainment.

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