The trailers of Stardust (2007) didn't look promising--"secondhand Narnia," I thought; "maybe third-hand Lord of the Rings," and forgot about it. When I heard enthusiastic praise from enough people though, my curiosity was aroused, so I went for a look.
I wasn't wrong in thinking it looked like a third-hand Lord of the Rings ripoff--Matthew Vaughn (he directed the gangster flick Layer Cake, which looked and felt like secondhand Guy Richie (and in fact Vaughn, a friend, produced two of Richie's pictures)) has included one too many horse chases edited to look spatially disjointed (see the similar chase between Frodo and the Ringwraiths in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), not to mention a heroine that makes the viewer want to bend his head low and cough "Gah-ladriel! Gah-ladriel!" And the sky pirates--did the filmmakers see Hayao Miyazaki's Tenku no shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky, 1986) with its airbag ship filled with ostensibly vicious pirates that at one point sails through a lightning storm? One wonders.
It doesn't help that much of the CGI effects look cheap, that the light-and-sound show that accompanies the climactic duel seem (as do most magical confrontations nowadays (I'd throw in the latest Harry Potter movie, while I'm at it)) especially underfunded, and that the cast seems composed of actors that have been picked out of a hat.
All that said--it's not bad; not bad at all. I'm not being sarcastic; the picture just about won me over when it introduced the seven fratricidal princes (Jason Flemyng and Rupert Everett, among others) and their senile father-king (Peter O'Toole); "now that," I told myself as one brother pushed the other off a high balcony, "I haven't seen in a fantasy pic yet; or at least not recently (I'm thinking of Jean Cocteau's 1946 La belle et la bete (Beauty and the beast), with its trio of shrewish sisters and a buffoonish suitor)." The brothers take on the appearance they had at the moment of their deaths (one looks darkly toasted; another has an axe sticking out the side of his head; another has distinctly flattened features (he's the high diver); another--but you get the idea), and if they're not lucky--if, say, an heir to the throne is not chosen from one of their bloodline before they're all eliminated--then I suppose they'll be stuck in this world as wraiths, looking the way they do for all eternity.
Stardust as it turns out, was adapted from the novel-length fantasy written by one Neil Gaiman; the moment I heard his name, the dawn broke--I was wondering who could be so openly, cheerfully macabre, so eccentrically humorous this side of Roald Dahl. If you've read any of Gaiman's graphic novels--he's best known for his stint writing Sandman--you'd in all likelihood recognize his voice in this picture, that combination of deadpan whimsy, mordant sadism and the odd, steady whisper of dark melancholy.
Gaiman is a welcome, fairly new voice in fantasy (fantasy cinema, at least). We've heard from him a few times before--bits of wayward humor found in his translation of Miyazaki's Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997--yet another chain linking Gaiman to the animator's works), the screenplay to a rather beautiful (in my opinion) oddity called MirrorMask (2005). This may be the first time we've seen him working on a relatively conventional narrative (by "relatively conventional" I mean--well, you have to see MirrorMask); all the familiar elements from the classic tales are present: the youth longing for adventure; the brothers sent out on a quest one at a time (each in his own unique way failing); the inn whose occupants are in magical disguise; the princess under a curse; so forth and so on. Stardust isn't as radical and disorienting a feature as MirrorMask--one reason I suspect that film failed to find a large audience was that its very strangeness is rather off-putting--so the former has done better business (relatively speaking; it's not doing Harry Potter-sized business).
MirrorMask is possibly the purest dose of Gaiman I've yet experienced on the big screen; in it you feel Gaiman's love for the grotesquely poetic, for (among many other sources) both L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz and Charles Dodgson's Alice books; you also feel the disdain for easy emotional payoffs. The protagonist's ostensible quest--to find the eponymous mask and save a queen in enchanted sleep--is the merest slip of an excuse to present a monstrous, Borgesian menagerie of dream creatures, one more bizarre than the next, with (as dream creatures are wont to do) not-so-immediately-discernible analogues in real life. In Stardust Gaiman takes the opposite approach; he throws up a storm of fantasy elements--Babylon candles, fallen stars, magic threads, walls between worlds, seven mistrustful brothers, three evil witches--that act as garish distractions, that eventually fall away as if in a striptease, leaving behind the love story at the heart of the film.
It's hard to pin down the nature of Gaiman's appeal, actually; like a half-remembered scent--half-remembered not because it wasn't memorable but because your mind was never allowed to focus on it exclusively--you struggle to recall the effect, a combination of modern-day cynicism and anachronistic romanticism and brief bouts of bizarre violence, whipped vigorously together to give a temporary semblance of coherence. The mix isn't for everyone--Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, for one, disliked what he described as the movie's "cruelty," and there are even knowledgeable connoisseurs of fantasy who can't stand Gaiman's work--but for others it's like stumbling onto your favorite fix lying across the road--for all you know (or care), freshly dropped out of the sky.
So--how, finally, to put it? I enjoyed this far more than the most recent Potter movie--well, more than every Potter movie ever made save Cuaron's (always better when a real filmmaker is directing); I enjoyed this more than Jackson's hugely overrated Lord of the Ring trilogy (unlike the "Ring" pictures it's got sex appeal and (more important to me) sexy repartee, it's free of even a whisper of pretension, and it doesn't take more than a third of a day to watch); I enjoyed it more than Narnia (the one movie in this little group based (in my opinion) on truly great material (if only it had a filmmaker to match)). Like I said--not bad; not bad at all.
(First published in Businessworld, 10/12/07)