Ian McKellenRobert De NiroClaire DanesMichelle Pfeiffer
Medium: film
Year: 2007
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writer: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, Neil Gaiman
Keywords: fantasy
Country: UK, USA, Iceland
Actor: Ian McKellen, Kate Magowan, Charlie Cox, Sienna Miller, Peter O'Toole, Mark Strong, Jason Flemyng, Mark Heap, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Claire Danes, Mark Williams, Robert De Niro, Ricky Gervais
Format: 127 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0486655/
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 30 June 2008
This movie is a Very Good Thing. I've always liked Gaiman's skewed reality and I think it's wonderful that it's inspired a big studio movie starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. I'd love them to do more and I can't wait to see where this nascent mini-genre might go next.
I only have two problems with it. Firstly, it's Gaiman-lite. Secondly, it feels hollow.
1. "It's Gaiman-lite". This doesn't feel like a movie written by Neil Gaiman, but instead like a movie written by someone who thinks Gaiman is cool. (That would be Goldman and Vaughn.) Gaiman's special trick, the thing that makes this film more than just a Miyazaki-wannabe, is his understanding of the rules.
Fairy tales work on dream-like logic, where the price of a flower might be something like your memories of the first three years of your life. It's scary because it's ridiculous. It's not our world, but a beautiful trap where you can't even begin to guess where the dangers might be. The brilliance of Gaiman is that he took these silly children's tales and took them seriously. He creates worlds that are fantastically absurd and yet dark as the pits of hell. One of the most stomach-churning things I remember reading was that face getting cut off and nailed to the wall in Sandman. I can't imagine many things scarier than living in a world that accorded to reality as perceived through a young child's eyes... and that's what Gaiman can do. He can see in ways most of us don't.
This film, though... at first I wrote that it has no balls, but I was wrong. On the contrary, it keeps getting darker. Its beginning is fairly light and carefree, but the next two hours see it almost by stealth creep into nastier territory, until by the end it's in a place that the younger children might have found scary. However it's very careful about the journey it takes in doing so. The murderous princes are introduced almost like a Noel Coward parody of themselves, for instance, and only gradually become menacing. My mother loves their ghost gallery. They are indeed funny. However they're also the kind of thing I'd associate more with Pratchett than Gaiman, who doesn't have the same ironic distance from his own work.
Clearly this is the result of no one knowing how best to create something entirely new in a mainstream Hollywood movie. I'm sure the marketing department were putting in their two penn'orth. What's more, you don't even need to have read Gaiman's original novel to agree with me. This film is toothless even compared with something like Harry Potter, despite targeting the same demographic.
As an aside, I personally find it ridiculous that Alan Moore hated James McTeigue's V for Vendetta, while Neil Gaiman seems to be a fan of Matthew Vaughn's Stardust. Both are excellent films. They're both put together with obvious love for the source material. The difference is that with V for Vendetta, the changes are updates, rewriting the politics to make it relevant for George W. Bush's America in 2005. I don't have a problem with that. I can see all the differences, but I think it works. Vaughn's Stardust though is basically cutting out Neil Gaiman. Instead of reinventing all the darkness, magic and power of those old children's fairy tales, it's just a very good children's film.
It doesn't smell of Gaiman. It has its moments. However that's all they are. This film is basically is a pleasant fantasy adventure that retains enough of the original's spirit to be fresh and interesting by movie standards, but isn't even as hard-hitting as some Disney animated classics.
2. "It's hollow". There's a reason why modern storytelling moved on from children's fairy tales. They're simplistic. They're not character-based, instead having the kind of plot that wants to be a Michael Bay action movie when it grows up. Scary monsters, lots of violence and death. Here our two main characters are Tristan (Charlie Cox) and Yvaine (Claire Danes), neither of whom really does anything out of motivation. Tristan's doing it all for a girl. No, not Yvaine. She's a 19th century bimbo called Victoria and anyone who thinks they're really going to end up together has clearly never before read a book or seen a movie. All this is okay as far as it goes, but unfortunately she never enters the magical land of Stormhold and she might as well have been the One True Ring or the dragon's mound of gold for all the difference it would have made to the story.
Meanwhile Yvaine is a star who's fallen to earth. She'd like to return to the sky, but she never does anything to further that aim and instead spends all her screen time tagging along with Tristan.
Of course this is also a romance. They're going to end up together. The predictability is all part of the formula and indeed this film is rather charming as an offbeat variant of When Harry Met Sally. However there's also plenty of action and running away, which is where the film's fairy tale roots start creaking.
Okay, that's (most of) the bad. Now for the good, which is very good indeed.
The actors are wonderful, with even my criticisms being the most pendantic kind of nitpick. Charlie Cox and Claire Danes are simply delightful together and I'd go so far as to give them most of the credit for this film's freshness, rather than anything Gaiman-derived. There's nothing airy-fairy or Disnified about them. They're completely down-to-earth, simple without being simple if you know what I mean. Straightforward, yes. Simple-minded, absolutely not. They're real, intelligent, charming and they run away with the movie.
Michelle Pfeiffer is splendid and still as gorgeous as ever. She's obviously having fun, but in her Wizened Old Hag scenes I think she struggled a little to get past the make-up. Wearing her own face, she's great fun and wildly charismatic. Under the latex, she's a little flat. However that's a tiny note and she's still a huge asset to the movie.
I'm in two minds about Robert De Niro, though. I've recently decided that he's a slightly stiff actor. He's one of the last great icons of the movie industry and has the most incredible body of work, but I haven't always been impressed when he tries more fantastical roles. The likes of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and here Stardust are a considerable departure from usual for him and I'm not sure he manages to submerge himself. He's blown the wall out of the cinema in the past with his trademark roles, but here I felt as if I was looking at Robert De Niro pretending to be Captain Shakespeare, rather than simply Captain Shakespeare.
Oh, and there's also Ricky Gervais. He's great, actually. If you're a Gervais fan, you'll like this. However if you think he's an annoying git who needs to shut up and you'd like to see him get struck dumb and then murdered, you'll enjoy it too!
It looks lovely. I may have issues with the story, but it certainly knows how to create some memorable images. De Niro's pirate ship is worth the price of admission in itself. I thought they might have overdone the dramatic effects with the Babylon Candle, which I'd have preferred had it seemed less cool and more eerie, but that's probably just me. I was also amused to see that a throat-slitting is done with blue blood. Literally. The liquid that pours out isn't red, but blue. This could be seen as a joke, but it's also a way of slitting a throat right in front of us while still keeping the film watchable for under-18s.
It also has a theme, on which Claire Danes even gets a speech. In an adult film it might have been a bit much, but here I approve. It's about identity. We have people turning into animals, or animals turning into people. We have Tristan's Victoria judging people on how cool they are and how much money they have. We have people changing gender or turning out not to be human at all. Pfeiffer's character is mildly obsessed with her appearance and gets told off by her sisters for wasting her magic on keeping herself young and beautiful. One character is gay... no, make that two characters, if you note that wink in the last scene which had me roaring aloud. That was clever, even if it's something that the younger members of the audience might not notice until they rewatch the film when they're a bit older. There's a lot more like this and it's all rather good.
I also like the film's subversion of heroism. Tristam gets a few action hero moments early in the film and fails at them. One gets so used to movie heroes being able to bend the narrative laws at will that it's rather ironic to get a splash of refreshing realism in the movie that's explicitly a fairy tale.
This movie is sweet. It's a little bit wonderful and despite everything I've said it is still clearly a Neil Gaiman adaptation. It may be only 10% of what it should have been, but that's still more than enough to make it stand out from other movies. The nearest comparison I can think of is with The Princess Bride, which has a funnier final act, but this has lovelier acting. Certainly it took me a while to come up with all these opinions and I can't really argue with my father's unreservedly positive reaction to the film. I hope it's wildly successful and that they make more films in a similar vein. This film is like the first instalment in a successful superhero series. People see the first film and rave about it, but when they get to see the sequel, they'll agree in hindsight that the follow-up was even better.