I have a bad habit of trying to predict the end of plot-heavy movies as soon as the opening credits appear. "Oh, they're going to fall in love," I say. Or "They're going to die in a tragic boating accident," I proclaim with a satisfied nod of my head. To which people respond, "It's frigging Titanic. Shut up."
This is a mistake with the fairy-tale movie Stardust, based off the graphic novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman. It's not a flaw that the movie lays its rules and, essentially, its conclusion out in short order. Well, let's actually be accurate. It's not a fatal flaw. The film, directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake), succeeds in its details.
After a bit of a prologue, we open on the mundane walled village of Wall, where the bumbling romantic Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) is making the same mistake that each of us has made; he's falling in love with someone he shouldn't. Victoria, all-in-all not really a bad woman, deigns to let Tristan, a mere shopboy, woo her. Under the influence of champagne and young love, Tristan promises to bring back a fallen star in exchange for Victoria's hand in marriage.
The problem, as often is the case, is when the object of your lady's fancy turns out to be Yvaine, a star that looks remarkably like Claire Danes in a silver gown sitting in the middle of a crater. Further complications arise when multiple parties also have interest in getting their hands on the star: witches who want to eat her heart, murderous princes after a jewel in her possession. The usual.
If that's all Stardust is, it would be merely a poor example of a romantic fantasy in the vein of Princess Bride played by a cadre of British actors. Its charm is in its flourishes and its lighthearted humor.
Yvaine's annoyed sniping at Tristan is amusing in its Moonlighting way and Claire Danes fits the role well; her irritability prevents her from being merely an astral, unrelatable presence. And Charlie Cox's Tristan appropiately seems like someone who just needs the right catalyst to grow into his own skin. After all, the central theme is that he's the type of person who is not a shopboy but someone who merely works at a shop until he finds his real destiny.
Every element of the story has just a bit more added to it that avoids cliche. The princes Septimus and Primus are after them for the ruby in Yvaine's necklace. It is the key to their birthright, the kingdom of Stronghold. If that were all there was to it, then . . . meh.
But, as their names make clear, they are merely two of seven, the rest of whom have died in the murderous path to the throne. The dead five form a Greek chorus of ghosts, commenting on (and wincing at) their brothers actions. Michelle Pfeiffer's witch Lamia's use of magic drains her lifeforce, making her look less like, well, Michelle Pfeiffer and more like the stock crazy old homeless man who finds the body at the beginning of Law and Order.
The young adventurers bounce from one near escape to the next. The film is peppered with moments of romantic magic, like candles that transport you across miles when you "close your eyes and think of home," though with nicely unpredictable results. Thankfully, everything works, everything makes sense, and everything has a price, as it should.
The pair only gets respite when they find themselves on a skyship lead by Captain Shakespeare. Played by Robert De Niro, the Raging Bull himself, in a role which is memorably unique in his career. Oh, if only Tony Soprano had seen this movie. The sequence with Shakespeare is fun but frustrating as it elides much of Tristan's character growth in a montage. Which highlights one of the problems with the movie.
The three threads that run through it are packed to the brim enough that the pacing gets a bit thrown off. The start and end of the film seems a bit rushed as it juggles plot points.
The score and soundtrack are the equivalent of a fellow filmgoer who keeps leaning over and telling you what just happened. I am aware, Mr. Overeager Violinist, that this is a dramatic moment. Give your bow arm a rest. I'm uncertain why Vaughn felt the need to telegraph the emotions that were well enough laid out on the screen.
But all of this is not enough to make Stardust into a bad film. Hurtling towards the happily ever after is predictable, but I was still smiling on the way.