I remember when Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess‘ book Stardust was published in the 1990s: It first came out as a series of 4 squarebound comic books, and I looked forward to it eagerly, having greatly enjoyed the couple of issues of The Sandman they’d done together. But I was bitterly disappointed in the series.
First, rather than being a graphic novel, it was instead a prose novel with illustrations by Vess. Moreover, it felt like a step backwards for both creators in its quality. Thumbing through it today, Vess’ illustrations often are of very simple design and execution, and don’t illustrate the moments that I’d most have liked to see illustrated. Gaiman’s text seems extremely weak: The characters have none of the strength or humor he employed in Sandman as a counterpoint to the (intentionally) dreary title figure, and the narrative style is plodding. Gaiman seems to have a tendency to start by writing a “travelogue”, taking the reader on a tour of the ideas in his head, but without much actually happening. Stardust has this problem in spades, and with a decidedly anticlimactic ending. It’s my least favorite of Gaiman’s novels.
So I wasn’t enthusiastic about a film adaptation of the book – until I saw the previews for it. A good cast, and the scenes looked more dramatic than I’d recalled from the book. So I decided I was interested in going to see it, and I’m glad I did, because Stardust the film is much better than the book.
The story takes place in the 19th century: Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) is in love with Victoria (Sienna Miller), but she doesn’t love him. One night, they spy a falling star, and Tristan promises to find that star and bring it back to her. But it falls beyond the wall for which is town is named, and the guard won’t let him through. Tristan learns from his father that he was born beyond the wall, and a gift from his mother allows him to head beyond the wall to the magical world of Stormhold on his quest.
The star turns out to be a young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes), who had been pulled to earth as part of a test by the dying King of Stormhold to choose his successor. Yvaine carries a jewel which will allow the successor to ascend the throne, and the jewel is pursued by the King’s sons Primus (Jason Flemyng) and Septimus (Mark Strong). Yvaine herself is sought for nefarious purposes by a trio of aged witches, in particular the evil Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer). Tristan finds her first, and they set off on paths to adventures as they make their way back to Wall, complicated by Yvaine’s dislike of Tristan as well as their pursuers.
Director Matthew Vaughn (who, like Charlie Cox, is entirely unknown to me) has assembled a terrific cast in support of a fine script which tightens up the novel and jettisons a lot of the boring stuff, while punching up the dialogue. Cox has an amiable-yet-bewildered nature which reminds me a bit of Matthew Broderick. Pfeiffer – as usual – is a thoroughly loathesome villain; a few more years of this and she’ll join Glenn Close among actresses I think are perfectly fine actresses, but they play so many roles of hateful characters that it’s hard to get behind her in any other role. Danes does a good job being by turns grumpy, resentful, insightful, lovestruck, and crushed, and she and Cox not only seem to have a good rapport, but they appear to build that rapport as their characters get to know each other.
Stealing the show is Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare, tyrannical commander of a lightning airship who isn’t all that he seems. He looks like he’s having the most fun he’s had in years, chewing scenery and acting like – well, you’ve gotta see it, it’s worth the price of admission all by itself.
I’ve never warmed to traditional views of Faerie; I find them depressing and capricious – maybe depressing because they’re capricious. So I was pleased that the film takes all of those elements out of Gaiman’s Faerie, as well as making several other changes, such as adding a climactic confrontation among the interested parties, something which was sorely lacking in the book. All the plot elements get neatly tied up in a much more satisfying manner than the book, especially in the epilogue.
The movie isn’t perfect: It still drags in places, especially in the first half. Yvaine’s behavior when they reach Wall lacks motivation (Debbi pointed this one out to me), and seems intended simply for cheap drama, which is too bad since plenty of expensive drama occurs immediately afterwards. But it gets a lot more right than it gets wrong, and all-in-all it’s a fun, exciting, and romantic film which is very well executed. I’m glad I saw it.