Once upon a time, on a humdrum college day, a friend of mine forced me – after weeks of intolerable nagging – to check out a novel entitled “American Gods by British comic book writer Neil Gaiman.
Up until then, I was not familiar with Gaiman’s works following a long sabbatical from reading comic books and graphic novels. “Gods took me by surprise. The plot was unlike any fantasy novel I’ve ever read before: It centered on an epic battle between the old Gods of ancient mythology and the new American Gods that represent modern life and technology.
Gaiman’s hilarious collaboration with Terry Pratchett in the witty novel “Good Omens was next for me. It was his “Sandman comic-books that reignited my passion for comics and Gaiman became my favorite contemporary fantasy writer.
Gaiman’s unique universe blended western mythology with Shakespearian themes and characters in a context that’s both dark and phantasmagoric. The level of sophistication, originality and depth of the “Sandman books in particular corroborated that comics can be every bit as engrossing and weighty for adults as the best of literature.
The only Gaiman work to be translated to the big screen was 2005’s visually arresting and little seen “MirrorMask. After years of guarded anticipation, Gaiman finally gets the proper celluloid treatment with the latest adaptation of his 1998 novel “Stardust.
“Stardust is quite different to Gaiman’s other works; written as an English folk fantasy tale. The film, and book, tells the story of Tristan (Charlie Cox), a shy, clumsy young man living in a small English village known as Wall. Tristan has a major crush on the village beauty Victoria (Sienna Miller), a beguiling, spoiled young woman with many suitors and admirers.
On a rare rendezvous with Victoria, Tristan vows to fetch a falling star for her birthday to attest his love and win her hand in marriage. In order to obtain the star, which has taken the human form of a radiant young lady called Yvaine (Claire Danes), Tristan has to cross the gate separating his ordinary village from the magical kingdom of Stormhold.
Tristan eventually manages to cross to Stormhold and begins his journey to bring Yvaine to Victoria, but he quickly finds out that Yvaine is perused by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), an aging wicked witch who must cut out the heart of Yvaine to acquire eternal youth.
On the hunt for the shooting star are the surviving sons of Stormhold’s king (Peter O’Toole) who charges them to fetch it in order to determine the next king. His sons, in keeping with family traditions, must knock each other off first.
Tristan would also meet up with Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), the skipper of a flying ship who, without spoiling any plot details, is not what he seems to be.
“Stardust is directed by Britain’s wonder-kid Matthew Vaughn, producer of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrel and “Snatch. He made his directorial debut with the coolest, slickest British film of the decade “Layer Cake. All of Vaughn’s films are caper dramas with cheeky, playful comedy and visceral violence. “Stardust, his first Hollywood production, is a major departure.
In adapting the story to appeal to a wider audience, Vaughn changed its tone from an adult fantasy tale with an ongoing dose of sex and violence to a whimsical fairytale with child-like sense of wonder.
Vaughn’s sassy humor remains front and center in his sophomore effort. The freewheeling mood, cascading charm, host of quirky, loveable characters and sweeping majesty of the English countryside is what makes “Stardust a great fantasy flick.
But the film’s certainly flawed. The multiple, sprawling storylines occasionally feel incoherent and the merge of numerous different genres is perhaps too ambitious. Still, the film is so endearing, engaging and entertaining that these flaws are accepted as elements of the plot rather than a substantial burden.
“Stardust has been frequently compared to the classic “The Princess Bride. While the latter is a technically superior picture, “Stardust works better thanks to its empathetic, affable protagonist. As much as I loved “The Princess Bride, I was never able to restrain, or neglect, my disdain for Cary Elwes’ conceited Westley.
The star-studded movie boasts its fair share of top-notch performances. Newcomer Cox never fails to lose the audiences’ sympathy in an escapade that sees his evolution from a boy to a man. Miller, as the knock-out Victoria, acts like the hottest girl in school every kid dreams of hooking-up with and it’s easy to relate to Tristan’s crush. Too bad Miller wasn’t given enough screen time to flesh-out her character.
Danes is, simply-put, adorable as Yvaine. She’s the affectionate, caring girl next door who may, or may not, change the course of Tristan’s passage. It’s not a demanding role for an actress known for a modest acting range, but Danes is so good that a Brit kid behind me suddenly screamed, “Mommy, I like her. She’s so cute.
Pfeiffer is bewitching as Lamia. Forget about the special effects, Pfeiffer, under heavy make-up showing her rapid, horrific aging, is devilishly amusing, unpredictable and gripping.
De Niro nearly steals the show with his side-splitting turn as Shakespeare. It s De Niro’s funniest, over-the-top role to date. “Analyze This and “Meet the Parents look like mere rehearsals for this role.
Critics are calling this decade the golden age of fantasy movies and it wasn’t until this year that I was obliged to concur. This year’s Spanish classic “Pan’s Labyrinth and the heartbreaking “Bridge to Terabithia should restore the faith of anyone who’s given up on the genre.
“Stardust may not be the strongest of the bunch, but it’s the most endearing, fun and magical. The film is first class escapist fare. I left the theater with a huge grin on my face and warmth I haven’t experienced in theaters for months.