Despite the bevy of blockbuster films released this year, such as Transformers, Spider-Man 3, and Live Free or Die Hard, the most fun I had in the theaters this summer was when I went to see Stardust. The film Matthew Vaughn (rightly) turned down X-Men 3 to make, Stardust is an ecstatic fantasy adventure. Based of the book by Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, American Gods), the film owes more to The Princess Bride than The Lord of the Rings. And with studios churning out tepid fantasy epics by the dozen, it's refreshing to see a film that stands out from the pack, distinguishing itself with humor, whimsy, and magic.
Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) lives in the village of Wall, in England. Wall isn't much of a place, but it does have one unique feature. It gets its name from a wall that runs across one side of the town, and every few years, a market is held on the other side. This is no ordinary collection of traders, though. No, on the other side of the wall is the portal to another realm, a realm of fantastical magic. Tristan doesn't much like life in Wall, but he loves Victoria (Sienna Miller), the town beauty. She doesn't think much of him, but one night, when she sees a falling star, she tells Tristan that she will marry him if he can bring the star to her within a week. As it turns out, that star fell for a reason. You see, the King of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole), the greatest kingdom across the wall, is on his deathbed. He has three heirs, but can only crown one king. He sends his royal necklace flying into the night sky, telling each of the heirs that whoever reclaims the necklace shall be the new ruler. The necklace hits a hapless star, who goes plummeting to Earth.
This turn of events doesn't go unnoticed. A coven of witches, led by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) detect the fall of the star. These witches use the hearts of stars to live forever. It's been a long time since they've had a fresh one, and so Lamia sets out to find her. Tristan finds the star, Yvaine (Claire Danes), first, and convinces her to accompany him back to Wall. It's not easy going, as Tristan doesn't understand the world around him, and Yvaine is not at all happy about being knocked out of the sky or being stuck with a country bumpkin. But seeing as how he's the only one not looking to kill her, eat her heart, or use her to gain control of a kingdom, he's the best bet she's got of getting home.
Stardust joins those rare ranks of movies that offer joyous fun from beginning to end. Director Matthew Vaughn received a lot of buzz for his slick English crime caper Layer Cake, starring future James Bond Daniel Craig. He was offered X-Men 3 after Fox shut out Bryan Singer, which he initially accepted. But after disagreements with Fox executives on the direction of the film, Vaughn backed out, opting to jump on this adaptation instead. Thank goodness he did. While I'm sure X-Men 3 would have been immeasurably better had Vaughn stayed on, I would gladly sacrifice it to get Stardust in return. I've seen it a few times now, and every time it puts an ear-to-ear grin on my face.
Vaughn uses a light touch throughout the proceedings, opting for humor and wit instead of blunt force or stories that try far too hard to be epic. He focuses on the adventure, gleefully whisking Tristan and Yvaine from one crazy situation to another, keeping the pace brisk without feeling rushed. Charlie Cox is utterly charming as Tristan Thorn, the boy who becomes a man. I had not seen Cox in anything prior to this, but that didn't matter. He had me hooked from the word go. He's got a very expressive face, and you can watch him grow from scared teenager to confident adult as the film progresses. Claire Danes is, pardon the pun, radiant as Yvaine, the fallen star. I've been a fan of Daines' work since My So Called Life, and she's only gotten more skillful and more beautiful as she's grown into a woman. This is the best performance I've seen her give in years, and she's brilliant. Capable of warming your heart with her smile, Daines also has her own progression, going from stuck-up and pissed off star to young maiden in love. The arc is well charted, and feels natural and satisfying.
The supporting cast shine just as brightly. Michelle Pfeiffer is back in ass-kicking mode as the vengeful Lamia. When she's not covered in convincing prosthetics, she still looks gorgeous. And she's clearly having fun with the role, relishing the chance to play another villain. Several name actors have minor parts, such as Peter O'Toole as the previous King of Stormhold, Ian McKellan as the narrator, Rupert Everett as Secundus, Ricky Gervais as a trader, and Sienna Miller as Victoria. But the real surprise is Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare, a fearsome pirate with a less-than-fearsome disposition. I had lost interest in De Niro several years ago, when he became content to slum in shallow comedies (Meet The Parents springs to mind) and appeared to have lost his knack for compelling dramatic material besides. So imagine my surprise when I saw him as Captain Shakespeare, and he was funny, and touching, and had a genuine spark of inspiration in him. The role may seem slight, but this is the best performance I've seen De Niro give in maybe ten years.
Stardust benefits from the fertile imagination of Neil Gaiman. While most fantasy suffers from an ill-defined set of rules (i.e. a wizard can come in at any time and just magic everything into being okay again), Gaiman is smarter than that. He puts in his escape routes, sure, but the movie never feels like it's making things up as it goes along. The picture is an old fashioned swashbuckler. I've often heard it compared to The Princess Bride, and truly, that's not unfair. It has the same combination of adventure, humor, and romance. Personally, I like Stardust even more. That's just a personal preference, as The Princess Bride is a classic and I can't think of a bad thing to say about it. Stardust takes the model and pushes it even further, with even more fantastic feats and brave new worlds. It's hard to put into words just how much fun it is, but trust me, this is one movie you don't want to miss.
The HD DVD:
Paramount presents Stardust in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in an AVC encoded 1080p transfer. To be honest, for a new 2007 release, I expected more from Stardust. Especially considering that the film looked a lot more vivid when I saw it in 2K projection. There's always a base level of quality, with a fairly good level of detail and saturation. But the image can change from shot to shot, with some close-ups looking a lot grainier (and softer) than the rest of the scene. On the plus side, the special effects looked better integrated than they did in the theater. On the other hand, typically a good HD transfer will reveal the flaws in the SFX, not hide them. I didn't notice any compression artifacts or other technical hiccups. Not a bad transfer, but not to the level it could or should have been. Come on, Paramount, Stardust deserves so much better.
The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix also has its share of problems. Specifically, the balance is all off. The loud scenes are deafening, with blasts of sound from the speakers. The dialogue scenes, by contrast, are so quiet that I found myself cranking the volume knob every time someone spoke. But then they'd be interrupted by another action sequence and I'd have to race to turn it down. The actual fidelity of the mix sounded fine, but the rears weren't used as effectively as I would have liked, with very little ambient noise or discrete usage. Again, Stardust deserves better than this.
- Good Omens - The Making of Stardust: This making-of is at its best when it's with the story's author, Neil Gaiman, which luckily is quite often. From interviews to set visits, Gaiman is a constant presence, which is great, because I'm a huge fan. The documentary runs half an hour, and is by no means comprehensive. It jumps from topic to topic, with only a few comments for each. But it's got interviews with Matthew Vaughn and Claire Danes, a lot of on the set footage. Perhaps the best part is a section with Ricky Gervais and Robert De Niro improvising with each other, and cracking each other up. This feature is in 1080p high definition.
- Deleted Scenes: Six scenes, all of them short and inconsequential. In standard definition.
- Blooper Reel: The only saving grace of this reel is more of the ad-libbing between De Niro and Gervais. In standard definition.
- Theatrical Trailer: Paramount clearly had no idea what kind of movie Stardust was, as the marketing this summer made clear. The best thing I can say about this trailer is that it's in 1080p.
Stardust is a wholly underrated piece of work, and better than 90% of the films that came out this year. Matthew Vaughn takes a light touch to Neil Gaiman's original story, crafting a swashbuckling fantasy adventure that is undeniably fun. The cast is fantastic, from the chemistry of Charlie Cox and Claire Danes to the ruthless villainy of Michelle Pfeiffer and the comeback performance by Robert De Niro. Unfortunately, this HD DVD doesn't have the best picture or sound, and the extras are far too brief to leave any lasting impact. Still, the movie is so good that it would be a crime to neglect it. Recommended.
Note: The images in this review do not reflect the image quality of the disc itself.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.