The second movie Mrs. Speculator and I took in this weekend was the fantasy Stardust. After the huge success of movies in the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series, small fantasies like Stardust are just going to have a difficult time succeeding in the marketplace. It’s unfortunate, because Stardust is a delightful movie, thoughtfully written and directed, never intending to be as awe-inspiring as those much larger movies and thus unlikely to receive as much attention as those grander films.
Of course, biased as I am, I would point out that part of the great success of Stardust lies in the story by Neil Gaiman. While he didn’t work on the screenplay, it was his work that created the foundation for the entire movie. Like most things Gaiman, there are a number of plot threads that are revealed in the course of the movie, all of which are tied up nicely by its end. The characters are filled out in the course of the picture, moving away from what could have been particularly flat roles into lively people. And best of all, there is humor, in the plot, in the characters’ interaction, in the very basis of the characters themselves.
Young Tristan Thorne is in love with Victoria, a young woman who is flighty and fickle. She is to announce her engagement to Tristan’s nemesis, Humphrey, but agrees to become engaged to Tristan if Tristan can return a fallen star to her within a week. No matter to Tristan that the star they have watched fall appears to have landed on the other side of the wall that stands outside his village, a wall that separates England from Stormhold, a kingdom where magic works and princes and witches also conspire to gather the fallen star. Through magic means, Tristan arrives at the star first, astonished to discover that the star is actually a young woman. Undaunted, however, Tristan begins the return trek to his mundane village, unaware of the pursuit of those witches and princes.
Those characters are played with joy and verve. Michelle Pfeiffer romps through her role as Lamia, a witch who seeks the star in order to use her heart to create a potion of eternal youth. Every time she uses her magic, she ages further and so she moves from stunning to haggish in the course of the movie. Also in the hunt are the two surviving princes of Stormhold, Primus and Septimus, whose father has set for them the challenge of returning the star to the palace in order to claim leadership of Stormhold. They are also accompanied by the ghosts of their five dead brothers, a rousing chorus of the dead, who offer insight and humor to the whole proceeding.
Stardust also has Robert deNiro, who nearly steals the entire movie as Captain Shakespeare, a rogue-ish captain who has plenty of his own secrets and a very unassuming crew. Along the way back to Tristan’s village, he and Yvaine (the star, played by Claire Danes) fall in love, with a few promptings from Shakespeare. Of course, no love story is truly complete until the lovers have a near-tragic misunderstanding, resulting in Yvaine’s capture by Lamia.
Imagine The Princess Bride with all of its characters and humor, and you will have a nice approximation of the feel of Stardust, only with more magic and twists in the plot. Stardust doesn’t have the zingy one-liners of The Princess Bride; its humor is more situational and dialogue-based. Nor does it have the epic scale of The Lord of the Rings, despite having a few establishing shots that could come from the same school. Stardust is a modern-day fairy tale, and comfortable in its scale. It’s funny and warm-hearted, and well worth the effort to catch before it escapes from mainstream theatres.