Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 08/12/07 23:53:42

"Neil Gaiman throws a great party."
5 stars (Awesome)

'Stardust,' the latest attempt to wrest fantasy cinema away from hobbits and ogres and boy wizards, benefits from a kind of buffet-table approach to fairy-tale flights of fancy.

Like its nearest predecessor The Princess Bride, it borrows liberally from centuries of tall tales, tumbling out like a bedtime story made up on the spot by a grandfather — or, in this case, by Neil Gaiman, the hipster dream-weaver who crossed over from comic books to bestseller lists. Gaiman’s illustrated novel Stardust has inspired a busy, generous movie containing multitudes: witches, pirates, ghosts, a falling star in the form of a woman, and a good amount of gentle humor about transgenderism.

Bracketed by the dulcet tones of narrator Ian McKellen, Stardust follows a young commoner named Tristan (Charlie Cox), who lives in the English town of Wall right next to the forbidden magical land of Stormhold. From the looks of it, Stormhold is a ren faire on steroids, presided over by a dying king (Peter O’Toole) who charges his remaining heirs with finding a ruby. Said ruby has found its way into the luminous hands of Yvaine (Claire Danes), the falling star whom Tristan has promised to a shallow beauty (Sienna Miller) from his hometown.

Still with me? Wizened witches, led by Michelle Pfeiffer as the diabolical Lamia, want to cut out Yvaine’s heart to recover their youth. A crew of airborne pirates, led by Robert De Niro as the multifaceted Captain Shakespeare, scoops up Tristan and Yvaine from the clouds. A goat turns into a man, a man turns into a woman, a woman turns into a bird, a corpse turns into a swordsman — Stardust denies itself no transformative twists or gags.

Some have called the movie cluttered, but I enjoyed its flamboyant grab-bag spirit. As directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake), who wrote the script with Jane Goldman, Stardust bops along smoothly and confidently, filled with color and wit. Neil Gaiman specializes in the purple picaresque, and though his work can sometimes be a bit precious (I didn’t care for his 2005 scripting effort MirrorMask), he generally writes the sort of good-hearted escapist fare he would’ve loved as a boy (and still loves). There’s affection in his work, and it seems to have spread to the cast; Pfeiffer and especially De Niro haven’t had this much fun in many years. It’s the sort of idiosyncratic party that brings out the best instincts in actors — the instinct to keep the party and the story going.

I, and others, have compared Stardust to The Princess Bride; so has Gaiman, since it’s a wry amusement that goofs on fairy tales while still honoring the source and the primal desire to be told a story. In truth, Stardust has a far different tone; the conceit of Princess Bride was that it was a dry book by S. Morgenstern whittled down to “the good parts,” and it was very much in the Jewish comedy tradition. Stardust has a decidedly English tenor, which allows for more deadpan jokes (and hilariously cavalier treatment of guest stars like Rupert Everett, Ricky Gervais, and Coupling’s Sarah Alexander, a beauty unrecognizable beneath pounds of old-witch latex).

Ultimately it’s its own fearless beast, a comic love story in which Claire Danes can confess her deepest feelings to a mouse, Robert De Niro’s closet proclivities can be warmly accepted by his macho crew, and Michelle Pfeiffer — who turns 50 next year — can simultaneously show how great she still looks and how unafraid she is to look catastrophically ugly.

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