Sunday, August 12, 2007

Movie Review: Stardust

So Hollywood can make good fantasy movies.

Stardust, directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman. Produced by Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, Neil Gaiman, and Matthew Vaughn. Starring Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Robert De Niro. Paramount Pictures. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults.

See other reviews here.

I'd like to be able to tell you I've read the novel on which this is based, but I haven't. I have a bad habit of having negative first encounters with authors: for example, years ago I first encountered Anne McCaffrey in Freedom's Landing, and it so revolted me that most of her more important work has yet to pass through my hands. My first encounter with Neil Gaiman, author of the novel Stardust, was his series of Sandman comics, which I consider an excessively lurid, semi-pornographic, self-absorbed perversion of true tragedy in spite of its impressive creativity. For that reason, I've yet to encounter Gaiman in any of his other, probably more mature, works. I cannot compare the film to the novel, but if the movie is faithful to the book, it's worth reading in spite of some self-inflicted injuries (and I understand it has illustrations by Charles Vess, which means it's worth looking at, too).

I had low hopes when I went to see this, mainly because the trailer was, as one of the characters might say, très lame. But I was pleasantly surprised to find the actual film is easily the best fantasy movie I've seen since The Return of the King, something it achieves through competent cinematography, beautiful settings, good casting, a complicated but carefully balanced plot, and an utter refusal to take itself seriously.

The story introduces us to the town of Wall, a little village in Merrie Olde England that happens to lie on the border with the fairy kingdom of Stormhold. After Tristan (Charlie Cox) promises his beloved (Sienna Miller) to bring her back a fallen star, he crosses the border into Stormhold and soon finds the star is a beautiful young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes). After the Yvaine for the purpose of cutting her heart out and restoring her youth is a witch (Michelle Pfeiffer), and after her for complicated reasons involving ascending to the throne of Stormhold is nasty Prince Septimus (Mark Strong). Various shenanigans ensue involving sword fights, flying pirates, and a hilarious appearance by Robert De Niro, which I can't describe without giving too much away but which can be considered morally problematic, depending on how it is interpreted. The story is largely conventional fairy tale and romantic adventure stuff : expect no twists, but expect to leave the theater with a smile on.

The review at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops suggests the film is not for children, and I agree (and this demonstrates the reviewers there still don't "get" fantasy or comic book movies). It is rather unfortunate in this case, as Stardust would make a good family movie if it were not for the mild sexual humor. Furthermore, this is supposed to be a romance, yet it climaxes with a sexual encounter, after which the guy sneaks out in the morning (the USCCB review calls this "implied premarital sex," which is an understatement). I guess romance really is dead; to any sensible viewer, this pretty much kills the mood. But it was good while it lasted, and the wrap-up is quite satisfactory, involving some neat sword fights.

Bring a date, but leave the kids at home.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Stardust:

Myth Level: High (packed with fairy tale conventions)

Quality: High (a well-constructed film all around)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (some uplifting themes combined with problematic elements)

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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