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The fantasy genre of fiction has often suffered from an unfortunate case of diarrhea of the pen. While some neophyte entrants into the fantastic might find J.R.R. Tolkien's 1000-page epic, The Lord of the Rings, intimidating, most would simply balk at the idea of wading through the massive worlds of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, Stephen King's The Dark Tower, or Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. Yet in spite of their girth these and other doorstop-sized series are tremendously popular, often finding their way onto the New York Times' bestseller list. Fantasy films, however, usually fail to attract the same kind of attention, namely due to the fact that it is nearly impossible to capture the intricacies of created worlds - the history, culture, mythology, etc. - in a mere two hours of screen time (Peter Jackson needed nearly twelve hours to simply skim the surface of Middle-Earth). Many of the best fantasy films, including The Princess Bride and The Last Unicorn, have been based on stand-alone novels. Stardust, directed by Matthew Vaughan, continues the trend of excellent one-volume adaptations as one of the best fantasies in recent memory.
Based on a novella by the prolific Neil Gaiman, Stardust is a rollicking adventure through the parallel world of Stormhold, located on the other side of a stone partition dividing the English town of Wall from its fantastic counterpart. Our young hero, Tristan (Charlie Cox), leaves England for the magical realm of Stormhold in search of a fallen star to prove his love to the starlet Victoria (Sienna Miller). Tristan finds not a meteor at the bottom of the massive crater, but a living, breathing star in the form of the beautiful Yvaine (Claire Danes). Tristan captures Yvaine and the two begin their quest across Stromhold to reach Wall before Victoria's birthday, when she will marry either Tristan, if he has brought her the fallen star, or the dashing Dunstan (Nathaniel Parker).
Yet Tristan is not alone in his interest of the falling star. On his deathbed, the king of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole) has sent the Ruby of Stormhold into the heavens, charging his living sons (four are already dead, having been murdered by their own siblings. The dead princes - in the exact state as they died - follow along the entire film) with the challenge of retrieving the necklace, with the first to do so becoming the next king. The necklace, of course, collided with Yvaine in space and caused her descent to Stormhold, and she now travels with the ruby necklace around her neck. The princes, led by Septimus (Mark Strong), set out to find the lost necklace and become king.
There's more. Three witches, led by the witch-queen Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), desire the heart of the fallen star to reclaim their beauty, which has faded with both age and use of magic. Magic is an interesting entity in the world of Stardust, as there are consequences to its use. Driven by vanity, the witches seek the fallen star, though Lamia must continually use magic - thereby increasing her ugliness - to find Yvaine. And so the film follows the pursuit of Yvaine, her heart, and ruby necklace across Stormhold, with nearly everyone desiring the fallen star for their own purposes. Tristan and Yvaine share numerous adventures, including a stint on the pirate ship of Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro). Shakespeare's ship flies through the skies collecting lightening, which is sold to merchants throughout Stormhold. Viewers will delight in a surprise performance from De Niro, who shows a lighter side than many would imagine. Captain Shakespeare doesn't quite steal the show, but he does add a peculiar flair to the world of piracy.
The visual imagery of Stardust is striking. Filmed in the verdure of the Scottish highlands and the Isle of Skye, the world of Stormhold is fully imagined and the landscapes are simply gorgeous to view. The CGI is not overdone, especially for a fantasy feature, and the beauty of Great Britain's geography is believable as the kingdom of Stormhold. The more impressive sequences include a multitude of action aboard Captain Shakespeare's air ship high above the clouds, as well as a climactic battle of magic and wits at the witches' stronghold.
Stardust is not a children's movie, with much violence and sexuality throughout. The film is not surrounded by the death and gloom of The Lord of the Rings or the graphic sex of Excalibur, but the film doesn't skirt around such issues, either. Sexual innuendoes and murder abound. The philosophical implications of the film are not tremendously deep, though the film does touch on such weighty ideas as immortality and free will. The major themes are, of course, love and honor, and the ability to understand what both truly mean.
Comparisons to The Princess Bride are inevitable, with Stardust containing many of the same qualities as the cult favorite: a heroic quest for love, colorful characters, and a barrage of quips and witty dialogue. Yet Stardust lacks the indefinable charm of William Goldman's novel or Rob Reiner's film adaptation, with few memorable lines or characters. Yet Stardust contains the same kind of whimsy as The Princess Bride, which helps it to succeed by not taking itself too seriously. This is not epic fantasy, rather an adventure romance placed into a fantastic parallel world.
Stardust is the most enjoyable fantasy feature since 2003's The Return of the King, and the best romantic fantasy since The Princess Bride. It is neither as grand in scope as the former or as charming as the latter, but falls somewhere in between. As an appetizer to the much-anticipated His Dark Materials films, the first being released this December, fans of fantasy will find Stardust to be a delightful little treat of romance and adventure. SEE ALSO: www.stardustmovie.com
Eric J. Morgan
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Eric J. Morgan is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Colorado. He has an orange cat named Nelson and longs for the day when men and women will again dress in three-piece suits and pretty dresses to indulge in three-martini lunches and afternoon affairs.
See other articles by Eric J. Morgan.
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