Ah, “epic fantasy”, a genre I love to hate sometimes. For every tremendously enjoyable film such as “Labyrinth” there are ten overrated or underwhelming installments such as “Legend”. And somewhere in between all that lay films such as “Krull”. Thankfully, I can say with confidence that Matthew Vaughn’s “Stardust” ranks rather highly within the genre and is probably the best family-friendly fantasy epic to come around since “Narnia”.
In a small English village stands a wall which separates our world from a magical country known as Stormhold. The good-natured day-dreamer Tristan (Charlie Cox) is desperate to wed the beautiful yet terribly self-centered Victoria (Sienna Miller), and when a star falls just beyond the wall, Tristan promises to retrieve it for her as proof of his devotion. What he finds within the crater, however, is a strange girl named Yvaine (Claire Danes). As it turns out, she was knocked down to Earth by a magical amulet released by the King of Stormhold (Peter O’Toole). He is dying and needs to determine which of his conniving sons is most worthy of his throne. Septimus (Mark Strong) heads out to retrieve the amulet and take the throne, killing all who stand in his path. Elsewhere, the wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer) and her cronish sisters desire to find the fallen star, cut out her heart and eat it to restore their youth for another four hundred years. Poor Tristan is now left to protect Yvaine and guide her safety, all the while avoiding those after her as well as other assorted dangers.
“Stardust” is based on a novel by renowned fantasy and horror author Neil Gaiman. Gaiman managed to win me over last year with his film “Mirrormask” so I felt this more cut and dry fantasy offering deserved my attention. At first it doesn’t come across very “Gaiman-esque” and feels like your typical dime-a-dozen fantasy stuff, but it quickly wins you over with its weird and dark sense of humor, eccentric characters and talented cast. The only thing about the movie which really screamed “Neil Gaiman”, I felt, was the ever-present dark humor. That also happened to be my favorite aspect of the film. It achieves a sturdy balance between light and dark; there’s lots of violence yet scarcely a single drop of blood to be seen. Most of the gruesome bits are played off for laughs and shouldn’t frighten or offend the young ones too much. The ghosts of Septimus’ siblings showing up every now and again to provide humorous commentary throughout the film is probably what really won me over, as their presence was both genuinely funny and clever.
The cast assembled is one of the best I’ve seen and not entirely due to the all-star names involved, either. I’ve never heard of Charlie Cox, but he really sold it as the main character, Tristran. Robert De Niro shows up at about the midway point of the film as the…”fabulous” sky pirate Captain Shakespear. His part was exceptionally funny and managed to provide an essential part to the development of Tristran as a young hero. Michelle Pfieffer throws in a fine performance as the more-often-than-not gruesome hag Lamia and Claire Danes plays the female lead nicely, though I don’t think she stood out as strongly as some of the others mentioned.
The resolution was well-done, with just about everything that had been addressed earlier in the film working into the conclusion seamelessly. In fact, the whole story flows very smoothly and keeps the pace going nice and steady.
I wouldn’t say “Stardust” is one of the best fantasy films I’ve ever seen, but I would say that it’s the best I’ve seen this year. Certainly your best bet for this week and a strong cap to the blockbuster movie season.