The Magic of the Stars
It's interesting how The Princess Bride looms over much of fantasy cinema. While the film wasn't a huge hit upon its release (netting only $30.9 Mil off a $16 Mil budget), the film quickly became a cult classic (thanks in no small part to constant play on cable channels), growing its fame until its become something of a cultural touchstone. Now, when a fantasy movie comes out that blends in elements of comedy and romance, it is inevitably compared to The Princess Bride. Hell, it's so ingrained in our cultural literacy that Deadpool 2 referenced its overarching story structure for its Once Upon a Deadpool release.
I mention all this because, when 2007's Stardust came out, it was inevitably compared to The Princess Bride. That comparison, mind you, did a great disservice to Stardust as the two films aren't really that similar. Yes, they both exist in a tangentially connected to the real world fantasy realm. Yes, they both mix in elements of comedy and romance to the main storyline. But in most other respects the films feel, and play out, very differently. Stardust isn't a perfect film but it does stand on its own a whole lot better if you just view it as its own thing and don't try to compare it in any way, shape, or form to another movie that, in no way, is related to it at all. Then, just maybe, you'll find the charms of this underrated gem.
Based on the 1999 novel (of the same name) by Neil Gaiman, Stardust follows Tristan (Charlie Cox), a young guy working at the local market in the village of Wall. Tristan is deeply, madly in love with Victoria Forester (Sienna Miller), the local girl in town who has the eye of every marriable man. While out one night together, Tristan and Victoria see a star fall from the skies. The prove his love, Tristan promises to venture out and collect that fallen star for Victoria. In response she says that if he does collect that star she will marry him. This sets Tristan on his mission, to cross over the stone wall that divides Wall from the magical kingdom of Stormhold (although he doesn't realize it's magical at the time) to find this star.
The star, it should be noted, is actually Yvaine (Claire Danes), a celestial being knocked out of the sky when a gem is magically sent up to the heavens. That gem was cast by the King of Stormhold who, on his death bed, said that whichever of his kin managed to collect the gem would become king. That sets the remaining, living brothers Prince Septimus (Mark Strong) and Prince Primus (Jason Flemyng), out into Stormhold to find the gem. They aren't the only ones that are on the case, though, as the evil witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), is also on the case. For her, and her two sister witches, she wants the star because stars are full of magical power. Killing Yvaine and draining her power would recharge the witches, granting them youth and magic once more. It's up to Tristan and Yvaine to elude her potential captors and get her out of Stormhold and off to safety once more.
Upon it release Stardust was not a huge success. it did moderate numbers at the Box Office ($137 Mil against an upwards of $88.5 Mil budget). In part that was due to only moderately favorable word-of-mouth. Critics were okay with the film, but constantly compared it to The Princess Bride. Structurally the films are very different, though; once was a sweeping adventure and romance while the other was... well, okay, it's also a sweeping adventure and romance, but of a very different kind. The comparisons only hold up on the surface.
The thing about Stardust is that it's a very deeply strange film that's hard to summarize. It technically opens twenty years before the main events of the film, describing how Tristan's father, Dunstan (played as a young man by Ben Barnes and then an older adult by Nathaniel Parker) went to Stormhold and met the young, enchanting woman, Una (Kate Magowan). They have a lovely night together, and then nine months after a baby is dropped on Dunstan's doorstep. Then we get to the story of the gem, and the quest for the princes to find that stone. Only then do we get to Tristan and Victoria, with his quest to get the star, but then we have to switch to the witches and their attempt to get the star, and that doesn't even count other subplots that are added on as the film goes on. That's four major stories, additional other threads, and a lot of characters all tied up and wrapped around each other.
As anyone that has read Gaiman's works in the past will know, this kind of intricate storytelling is par for the course for the author. That makes for fantastic novels and comics, but it can also lead to stories that feel all but unadaptable for the Hollywood machine. How do you condense all of that story material down to a digestible movie length. To the production's credit the film, written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn and then directed by Vaughn, does a pretty solid job of getting all the story threads going and the movie moving along at a steady and enjoyable clip. But it does still make for a dense movie that, for some audience members, maybe have been too much for them to follow. I have to think, had this production happened even ten years later, it would have ended up on a streamer, like NetflixOriginally started as a disc-by-mail service, Netflix has grown to be one of the largest media companies in the world (and one of the most valued internet companies as well). With a constant slate of new internet streaming-based programming that updates all the time, Netflix has redefined what it means to watch TV and films (as well as how to do it)., done as a four-to-six episode mini-series, which would have given the story more room to breathe.
Bear in mind, I like the clip it moves at and I enjoy that, despite it's two hour run time, there's very little fat on this film. It's not flabby in the slightest. With that said, many of the characters could have used more fleshing out in the movie to give their presence more weight and necessity. The quest of the Princes, Primus and Septimus, for example, could have used more time with these guys so we could get invested in them. They're kind of villains, kind of not, but they feel very one-note in the film whereas more time with them, say in a mini-series, could have strengthened their presence in the story. The love story between Tristan and Yvaine is the thrust of the film, with Tristan slowly realizing that his desire for Victoria was shallow in comparison to the feelings he develops for Yvaine, but that's played more by Cox, sold by his performance, than the story really has time to develop. The threads of the film function, but they'd be even stronger if they had time to fully develop.
Although, if we're being frank, in a cast full of great performers -- Cox, Strong, Flemyng, Pfeiffer, to say nothing of a game appearance from Robert De Niro -- Claire Danes is the real weak link of the film. To sell the romance we need Yvaine to have a ton of facets to her character. The star is knocked from the sky, so its understandable if she's a tad grumpy about that, but she also needs to be likable and interesting and she eventually has to have real chemistry with Cox. Danes, however, seems to have gotten the abrasive and grumpy part of the character and failed to really bring the rest to Yvaine. She's half of the central characters but when it comes to making Yvaine into a character we want to like, Danes just seems lost. She doesn't bring the romance to this romantic film. It's a good think Cox is there to pick up the slack (and he does, in a big way) because Danes needed all the help she could get.
Also, I do need to note that while I like De Niro's performance here (again, he absolutely throws himself into the role), his character has not aged well. He plays the sky pirate captain Shakespeare of the Caspartine and the captain is, well, a transvestite and a very flaming fop. The film never really gets into if he's gay, or trans, or anything else as this was 2007 and Hollywood was still terrible with that kid of representation. While I don't need to know all the ins and outs of his identity -- be who you want to be -- and the film does eventually let him know that, it doesn't get to that point with his character before making him the butt of a lot of jokes. The films seems to want to do right by his representation, and tries to get there, but it fails a lot along them way, leading to a character that feels very awkward when viewed from a 2023 perspective. I won't judge the film or the book on this alone (in part because I haven't read the book yet), so while I will applaud the story in general for try to do right by the character, I do ding the film for the way it goes about getting there.
Still, there is a lot to like in this film despite these flaws. The cast is fantastic, the script is light and quite funny, and the film moves along steadily despite its two-hour-plus run time. I don't think this is the best adaptation of this story we could have gotten, but for 2007 it does a pretty respectable job. Maybe down the road we'll manage to get a version at the right length, with a cast just as good as this one (and an even better Yvaine) such that the movie or series or whatever truly shines (like a star). Until then, though, this version of Stardust is a solid effort worth watching.
I think the real reason why we don't hear much about Stardust (outside sites like this one suddenly remembering it was a thing that existed at all) is due to when it came out. Had the film been released ten years earlier it could have benefited from regular viewings on cable. Ten years later and it would have been a solid production on a streaming service where it might have debuted well and found legs on repeat views, the kind of long-form binge people like in this era. Released when it was, though, the best it could find was life on home video, but even then the market was starting to shift and change. You had to have good word of mouth to drive up DVD sales, and Stardust's under-performance at the Box Office sank that. It took what could have been a fun little hidden gem and rendered it into a forgotten fable. It did, at least, deserve better than that.