Stardust (5/10)

Neil Gaiman’s critically lauded novels have been known for combining the rich wonderland of fantasy with every day real life, such as in Anansi Boys, American Gods, and his Sandman series of graphic novels. Stardust is also based on one of his books, and unlike others, it more focuses on traditional fantasy lore with a delicate feel of modernism to it. One of the reasons his other works actually work is that they fuse fantasy and realism, but in this world, where Gaiman limits himself to an English countryside type place, it’s mostly just full-on fantasy. There are witches, lightning harvesters, evil enchantments, and true love to be found at the heart of it all. Unfortunately, this is precisely Stardust’s downfall. In trying too much to be like old school fairy tales (Lord of the Rings and such), it carries the air of trying too hard. You can tell that it wants so bad to be the kind of classic fairy tale that everybody loves, but too much of it feels fake and pretentious, and there are several uselessly added layers that don’t do much to enhance the story.

The film begins with a deliciously wonderful voice-over by the incomparable Ian McKellen, who narrates throughout the movie, and is undoubtedly one of the best things about it. His soothing voice carries us to a small English countryside town whose wall borders on the magical land of Stormhold. A man journeys forth into the magical world, and 18 years later his son, Tristan (geez how fairy tale-ey can you get?) (whose mother resides in Stormhold) has grown up into a man who is in young puppy love with a rich girl who lives down the street. Alas, he cannot win her heart because he is a mere shop boy, but luckily for him, a star falls from the sky that he promises to retrieve for her in exchange for her hand in marriage. He journeys to the star, only to find that it is actually a fallen star named Yvaine, and together they must weather other people who are after them, including a devilish witch (a smart but underused Michelle Pfeiffer) and three sons of a recently dead king (Peter O’Toole in the best role of the movie) who must retrieve an amulet that will give whoever finds it kingship over all of Stormhold. Yeesh. If that plot isn’t enough to show you how contrived and pretentious this movie is, let me continue.

Stardust’s greatest downfall is how much it believes that it is such a great tale of whimsy, fun, and fancy. But with such a convoluted plot (and believe me it gets convoluteder, er, more convoluted), there’s no way it can claim to be a simple adventure. For starters, there are several things about the plot that should have been completely done away with. One is Robert De Niro’s character of the gay pirate. Yes, I know everyone’s raving about how he’s playing against type and how great he is, but I don’t really care. Once you get past the superficial “ha ha ha he NEVER plays this type of character!” there’s not really much there, and the entire scene aboard his flying lightning harvesting boat (admittedly this is a pretty cool idea) is basically useless. If any other actor were playing this character, it would cease to be funny after about two minutes. Sure, it’s amusing, and yeah, I laughed many times during this scene, but there needs to be a higher standard than De Niro simply playing against type. Like I said, once you get past that, there’s nothing, and once I realized this I pretty much stopped enjoying it. There’s a scene where De Niro dances in front of a mirror trying on different dresses, and the whole audience was roaring, but I sat there thinking, “Is this what his career’s come to?” He’s dancing in front of a mirror with dresses, and it’s only funny because it’s De Niro, not because of any inherent comedic value in the scene. His entire character is a simple gimmick, and the fact that he’s gay doesn’t help the storyline at all. Once Tristan and Yvaine left his ship I breathed a sigh of relief. Other instances of useless plot threads abound. Tristan’s father journeying into Stormhold before him is basically useless, and only put there so that Tristan can have a joyful reunion with the mother he never knew he had later. Why? It cluttered up the storyline with more confusing information that I didn’t really care for. Another one is that the dead king had seven sons, and over the course of the movie most of them die, reappearing right away as ghosts in the exact state they died. There are some very amusing moments that accompany these ghosts, but they also seemed very pointless, another cool gimmick that of course will draw laughs, but ultimately reeking of thinly added layers of story. There could have been just one or two sons, and nothing would have been lost. Another useless point, however hilariously forgivable it is, occurs when De Niro sells his lightning to a trader, played by Ricky Gervais in, personally, my favorite moment of the entire movie, as Gervais milks the role for all it’s worth, reminding me of his role in Night at the Museum, a harmless but ultimately useless movie, in which he had three scenes as the curator, but stole every single one of them and outshone everything else in the entire affair. He does the same thing here. His three minutes onscreen top De Niro’s gay pirate effortlessly. Him, Ian McKellen, and Peter O’Toole are worth the price of admission all in themselves. The end result of the useless plot threads is a story that’s so unnecessarily complicated that there’s no way it can claim to be any kind of whimsical fairy tale. The extra plot threads wouldn’t have bothered me if they had been woven into the tapestry of the movie enough to be unnoticeable, but they’re so sloppily done the careless craftsmanship is almost unforgivable.

Aside from the useless, sloppily done plot threads, another thing that bothered me was the anything goes use of magic. Supposedly, when the witch, Michelle Pfeiffer, I don’t even remember her name, uses magic, it takes a toll on her borrowed youth so that she ages. So she uses magic several times, sparingly, of course, and when she does two bits of magic, both of her arms fade to withered skin dotted with age spots. Understandable, as both of these bits of magic weren’t that large. But then she conjures an entire inn, complete with rooms, a bar, baths, a stable, a dining room, and everything you could possibly imagine in an inn. This doesn’t take a toll on her at all, and it is never explained. Then, later, she makes an entire room erupt in green flame, and for some reason that ages her. Then later there are intermittent bursts of magic that do or do not take a toll on her. Whenever there is magic in a world, it must be properly explained, otherwise it just seems like the writers or directors are adding it just for the heck of it. Stardust feels like the author was making it up as he went along. Maybe the book explains magic better (I haven’t read it), but the movie does a very poor job indeed. At several points during the movie, Michelle Pfeiffer’s sisters kill animals to divine some kind of information, but this bit of magic was never explained either, and it just seemed like the creators were too lazy to explain how this worked. I’m not asking for a detailed monologue on how divining animal innards works, but there is never any evidence of a greater magical structure to this world. Yvaine (competently played by Clare Danes) is a star. You hear that? A star. Yet her powers are never used until the end of the movie, and for the most part she feels so powerless for such a wonderful object. All she does is shine when she’s happy. Great. How amazing. She also talks about looking down on Earth and seeing how great the love is there, and how no other love can be seen in all the universe, but then at the end of the movie she explains that stars can’t shine without love. Wait, what? Plot hole! Another thing is that a small flower is supposed to protect its holder from harm, yet spells and blows either bounce off it or hit their target with no apparent “rules of magic.” You might say, “It’s magic, it’s not supposed to have rules!” but if magic has no rules, then anybody could do anything, and then there wouldn’t be much of an interesting plot, would there? And in the grand finale to the film, all previous supposed rules of magic are tossed out the window in favor of an over-the-top (albeit semi-visually impressive, if a bit derivative) climax.

My other qualm with this movie is how its modern elements are completely disparate with its fantasy elements. When the star falls from the sky, we go up above the Earth and look down. What? This isn’t sci-fi! This is fantasy, where we don’t need to see stuff like the actual star fall to the actual Earth. It was also kind of boring. True, great effects, but mostly just unimaginative. It could have been done in a much more creative way, that didn’t necessarily take “star falling from the sky” literally, but transformed into something metaphorical and beautiful. Why show the Earth? It was pointless. It also showed us rising up out of England. Wait, what? We’re in this actual land of England? Where is Stormhold located in England, then? Is it an actual place? Is there some magical barrier? Showing the Earth simply makes it confusing and a little too real. Like, if the world is an actual sphere, then wouldn’t stars actually be giant burning balls of bright? By then I was immersed in the fantasy world, jumping out of it like that into sci-fi really detracted from the whole experience for me. Another way that this “fairy tale” rings false is how the characters easily jump into bed with one another as if they were part of the cast of “Friends”, when the sleeping together does nothing to advance the story, and even detracts from it as the immediate physicality just reeks of lazy writing and a refusal to do anything new with this kind of storyline. It also diminishes the love the characters share for one another. Other amusingly ironic but ultimately too obvious pop culture references pepper the mix.

Stardust has been more often than not (and perhaps slightly unfairly) compared to the classic Princess Bride, a masterpiece of whimsy and fancy, a simple straight forward fantasy adventure that Hollywood seems to have lost the ability to create. These days it seems most of what hits the big screen has to be crammed with spectacle and chaos, a whirlwind of jumbled up magical powers battling for control of the screen. Stardust is no exception, so at first it seems like it wants to be that way, and I guess if you’re looking for some spectacularly epic story that blazes along at an insane pace, then it could be your ticket. For me, though, it was too much an amalgam of better fantasy tales (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride), where the tone is clear and definite, and one side isn’t always vying for attention. Too often Stardust seems to be trying to be this grand sweeping epic movie, but then it will go into moments where it strains almost to the breaking point trying to whimsical and charming. It never mixes effectively– the parts are too different and not woven well enough together to create anything reasonably entertaining. All this being said, though, it can be an enjoyable ride if not over-analyzed, but for me, its slipshod craftsmanship and poorly woven storyline were too much to really give it a good recommendation.

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