- MURKY MAGIC: 'Stardust' fails to enchant.
Though I'm a big fan of straight-laced drama, there's nothing wrong with throwing a handful of fairy dust into the face of your average film. Some of my favorite movies of all time, in fact, have featured a generous helping of the magical – “Pan's Labyrinth” comes to mind, as does “The Princess Bride,” and ”Wizard of Oz.” However, with Hollywood sort of drunk on magic elixir right now via the success of the Harry Potter films and the just-finished Lord of the Rings trilogy, the witches and wizards vibe is working its way into more and more movies. As with anything, overuse is wearing the magical a bit thin.
A case study for the film that suffers because of what came before it is “Stardust.” Though it's a perfectly serviceable fairy tale, full of wizards and unicorns and evil queens, the magical elements of “Stardust” can seem like so much flotsam in the current.
“Stardust” is the story of young Tristan (Charlie Cox), a handsome but rather clumsy boy who lives in the English village of Wall in what is apparently the 1870s. The town in called Wall because there is a large stonewall that runs through the forest to the north — a magical wall, in fact, that separates our world from the fairy tale world of Stormhold. After seeing a falling star, Tristan sets off on a journey into Stormhold to retrieve it in order to win the love of his would-be fiance. What he doesn't know, of course, is that when a star falls to earth in Stormhold, it becomes human. In this case, the star is Yvaine (Claire Danes, looking more odd than ethereal in a long Gwyneth Paltrow hairdo). Yvaine was knocked out of the sky by a fabulous jewel that was cast into the heavens by the dying King of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole), who told his murderous sons that whoever could retrieve the stone would become the new king. Meanwhile, a trio of evil witches (led by Michelle Pfeiffer) seeks Yvaine because her vivisected heart can give them eternal life and youth. Of course, Tristan manages to get to Yvaine first, and sets off to take her back to Wall. On the way, they run into many adventures, and something more than friendship begins to blossom between them.
Though there are some genuinely funny, awe-inspiring and lovely moments in “Stardust,” in the end it just tries too hard to fit into the “magical” department — so much so that it can come off as a bit like a bad sword-and-sorcery book for pre-teens. Much of the dialogue is wooden and the story sounds like something we've all heard before, right down to the happily-ever-after ending. There are, however, more than a few bright spots. One of these is the extended cameo by Robert DeNiro as the alternately fem/butch sky pirate Captain Shakespeare, who commands a dirigible that collects lightning from storms via huge copper nets. DeNiro is absolutely a comic delight in a role that (while a little too close to the Dread Pirate Roberts from “Princess Bride”) has him playing a ruthless monster in front of his crew to keep from them the fact that he is in fact a crossdressing, hairdressing, fashion-obsessed Nancy boy (the scene when Shakespeare's secret is finally revealed to his men — with DeNiro in a full can-can dancer's outfit no less — might be one of the funniest things I've seen all summer). Also terrific is Michelle Pfeiffer as the evil witch-queen. Though she's a little buried under old-age makeup at times, she's still great in the role, and still beautiful enough to make you believe that if a woman asked for youth and good looks, this is what she might want to look like.
Though “Stardust” is a watchable movie, one that will likely appeal to fans of the magical genre, as well as to kids and teenage girls, I found it a bit plodding at times, consumed in a web of CGI-based pixie-dust. If only the director had relied more on the great talents he had onscreen and less on the newest geek-gasm technology, this might have been a film that lived up to its high-flying name.