Once upon a time …
That famous opening line conjures vivid pictures of storybooks, princes, princesses, magic spells, wicked witches, dragons, epic battles, and curses broken by the power of a kiss.
Some of us associate it with children's stories, and write off the kingdom of make-believe as "kid stuff." But lately, since Peter Jackson's big screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and the publishing phenomenon of Harry Potter, grownups have become an enthusiastic audience for fairy tales. And more and more authors and artists are creating fantasies specifically tailored for adults.
When it comes to "adult fairy tales," author Neil Gaiman is becoming one of the world's most popular tale-spinners. His roots are deeply planted in traditional fairy tales from Andersen to Grimm, and he fuses differing cultural mythologies into striking new visions that convey spiritual ideas. Popular stories like the Sandman comic book series, Neverwhere, and American Gods have won him a loyal following.
Stardust is not your typical Gaiman yarn. It appeals to a younger audience with its wit, whimsy, romance, and elements of children's stories. Some conservative evangelicals and Christian ministries might condemn it, saying its focus on witches and spell-casting will lure children into dangerous territory. But as in J.K. Rowling's stories, the magic here is distinctly the stuff of make believe. Here, spells and charms and curses give us a way of thinking about the many differing gifts and powers we possess. They vividly illustrate the conflict of good and evil, the consequences of sinful choices, and the difference between love and lust.
But there is a problem with Stardust that should give parents pause before they let their children run off to this PG-13 tale. And it has nothing to do with the fanciful spellcasting. The movie's marketing suggests that Stardust is a light-hearted adventure for all ages. And on the big screen, it is. But if young viewers run from the movie to the novel, they'll be exposed to scenes of gratuitous sex and material inappropriate for younger readers. So be warned: If your kids like this PG-13-rated movie, it may lead them to an R-rated book.
As this is a review of the movie, not the book, let's focus on what moviegoers will encounter:
The film's title refers to the magical aura of the story's celestial damsel in distress. Yvaine (Claire Danes) is a star. Seriously. And she's lived in a heavenly realm for many years. But when the king of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole) brings her crashing down to earth, she finds herself and her magical ruby pursued by a wide variety of people and powers.
Evil princes want to claim the ruby and thus the kingship. A particularly wicked old witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) wants to cut out Yvaine's heart to steal its power, regaining physical beauty and youth. Ghosts straight out of Beetlejuice want to be entertained by the whole endeavor. And a garrulous trader (Ricky Gervais) wants, well, money.
But thanks to the power of a transportation device called a "Babylon candle," someone else finds Yvaine first. Young Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox) is trying to prove his love to Victoria (Sienna Miller), the vain, insensitive beauty who has claimed his heart. He promises Victoria that he'll fetch her that fallen star, and he crosses over a magical boundary from the quaint village of Wall into the realm of Stormhold. When Tristan discovers Yvaine, he puts her on a leash and drags her along in what becomes the most elaborate cross-country chase since Midnight Run.
Tristan thinks his journey with Yvaine will lead him to winning Victoria's heart. But every moment with the fallen star takes him into a deeper understanding of love, and before it's over, he'll solve some of the mysteries of his parentage. Meanwhile, Yvaine will find the missing piece of the heart she seeks to protect.
Narrated by Gandalf himself (Ian McKellan), Gaiman's fantasy is wild, fast-paced, unpredictable, and packed with references to other tales. Like many contemporary fantasies, the story's themes could be easily reduced to bland slogans that appeal to our self-interest: "Be what you were born to be." "Don't conform to your society or live within its boundaries." Stardust falls short of true profundity by its refusal to acknowledge the existence of any authority higher than our own fractured hearts. The sexually ambiguous airship-pirate Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro) serves to deliver an obvious, unfortunate message: That you should do whatever you want, no matter what other people think.
But Stardust also inclines us toward more honorable insights: True love is based on honesty and trust rather than skin-deep lust. Those who cling to youth and vanity through cruel and unusual practices will end up empty and corrupt. The pursuit of power leads to heartlessness and destruction.
On a deeper level, Stardust reflects the reality that we're all longing for a higher existence, a heavenly design from which we have fallen. And love opens us to a power greater than any witches' spell.
These themes are awkwardly juxtaposed in a film that cannot decide whether it wants to be a quirky, comical tale a la The Princess Bride; a dark, mystical fantasy along the lines of Ridley Scott's Legend; a CGI-fueled battle of wizards who wish they were in Harry Potter's world; or a costume party for legendary actors.
Stardust's extravagant design is its greatest strength. Loosely based on Charles Vess's illustrations for Gaiman's original graphic novel, the movie is full of castles, inns, mansions, and enchanting fantasy landscapes provided by Iceland and Scotland. These are cleverly sewn together with CGI environments in ways that reflect the influence of Peter Jackson's TheLord of the Rings and Andrew Adamson's The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
The cast holds our attention with enthusiastic performances. Danes is likeable and pulls off her British accent nicely, but there's nothing particularly otherworldly or celestial about her. Cox is charming, growing Tristan up into a winsome swashbuckler. And Peter O'Toole, in his brief appearance, conveys more intelligence and power than any of the other big names.
Pfeiffer, in a welcome return to fairyland, shows that she still has the enchanting beauty and spark that made her such a luminous presence in Ladyhawke twenty-two years ago. But her best moments are quickly shoved aside so she can become a canvas for makeup artists. (When one spell begins to lose its, um, "holding power," her breasts suddenly sag.) Pfeiffer's flamboyant, self-effacing performance makes us wish for a role that takes full advantage of her talents, and her beauty, soon.
De Niro turns in one of his wackiest performances as the gruff Captain Shakespeare, a pirate of the skies who keeps a particularly un-pirate-like secret in his closet. He wins a lot of laughs from the audience. But we're laughing because, well, it's Robert De Niro dancing around in a petticoat. And that breaks the spell of the storytelling. A lesser-known actor could have made the flamboyant captain a stronger character, and avoided the distraction of "stunt casting."
While he's clearly working with combustible talents, director Matthew Vaughn seems incapable of mustering any sense of mystery, magic, suspense, or grace. His experience working with director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) shows—the film's far too heavy-handed and action-oriented to cast any kind of spell.
Fantasy is a tricky thing. A little bit of magic goes a long way, and too much of it can
spoil any sense of suspense. In Stardust, there are so many powers, talismans, spells, and transformations that it becomes distracting and confusing.
All of this goes to show just what a phenomenal high-wire act The Princess Bride really was, with its wit, wisdom, and self-effacing wink. Rob Reiner's timeless fantasy classic played to its actors' strengths; Stardust wants us to laugh at how De Niro and Pfeiffer play against type. TPB had a feeling of spontaneity; here, the comedy often feels forced. TPB never needed to jolt us or jar us to hold our attention; but the closer we get to the end of Stardust, the more it assaults us with tiresome special effects exhibitions.
Still, the power of fairy tales to illuminate transcendent mysteries does glimmer along the feeble threads of this story. It's enough to whet our appetites for bigger (and hopefully better) fairy tales scheduled for the next few months. The Seeker: The Dark is Rising is based on strong source material, but the preview is packed with cliché s. The Golden Compass looks great, but its author has spoken forcefully about how the story was written to lure young readers away from the Christian ideas in The Chronicles of Narnia.
Will any of them surprise us with real resonance or masterful storytelling? Where is the next fantasy adventure that will resonate with the redemptive power of works by C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L'Engle? Their stories still shine with such heavenly mystery and cosmic imagination that they leave everything else in their stardust.Discussion starters
- When Tristan pledges his love to Victoria, what's wrong with his perspective? What does he need to learn about love?
- Discuss the motivations of the many characters pursuing Yvaine. Are any of them honorable?
- Discuss the witches' compulsion to regain their youthful allure. Is it wrong to try and hang on to physical beauty? Shouldn't we strive to look our best as we age?
- Captain Shakespeare has some secrets. Is he wrong to keep them secret? Will he be a better person if he brings his secrets out into the open?
- Stardust suggests that we should always follow the inclinations of our hearts. Is that a good rule to live by?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Stardust is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and some risque humor. The film begins with a short tale that culminates in a scene of implied premarital sex, and the film treats this event as a whimsical, amusing situation. There are scenes of magical violence—some comical and some frightening.
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