Casseroles are great things for cooks, especially if they’re derived from a previous meal. Take my mother’s famous turkey casserole. Born out of financial hardship, it takes the remainder of a hearty and somewhat pricey turkey dinner from the holidays, mixes various ingredients together into a simple glass casserole dish, and the resulting meal doesn’t so much taste good as waft directly into the part of the brain that tastes anything delicious. I think it might be partially where my interest in alchemy comes from, as I think there might be magic involved in its creation. But I’m wandering off my point.
My point is that artists of all kinds use the casserole idea when they’re adapting a work from one medium to another. If it’s not the original author, the result tends to be good in bits and pieces, but somewhat lackluster in-between. While Stardust is good, it’s a prime example of artistic casserole-making that doesn’t quite approach the realm of Doubt, The Princess Bride or my mother’s signature dish. The film starts Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Sienna Miller, Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett and Peter O’Toole.
Stardust is based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, an English author of speculative fiction and graphic novels who is most noteworthy for the Sandman series and his American Gods novels. Stardust differs from his other works in that it’s a pre-Tolkien English fantasy through and through, rather than any sort of allegory, and the story doesn’t travel too far into the shadows, maintaining a somewhat light tone. The film does the same, under the direction of Matthew Vaughn, and while it’s a delight to watch and there’s plenty to like, it feels more like a series of vignettes than a coherent narrative.
The writing is clever and imaginative, as it’s rather faithful to Gaiman’s original text. The story centers on Tristan, a young Englishman living in the quaint country village of Wall. He’s courting “the most beautiful girl for a hundred miles around,” but the task begins to prove more and more daunting as Victoria makes more demands. She sees a falling star, and tells Tristan if he gets it for her she’ll gladly marry him. Foolishly, Tristan goes after it, but when he gets past the guard at the wall for which his village is named, he finds himself in a completely different world, composed of “each land that has been forced off the map by explorers and the brave going out and proving it wasn’t there.” When he comes across the place where the star came to earth, he finds a beautiful girl instead. The girl is pursued by evil witches and selfish princes, who each want her for their own reasons, so Tristan must keep her safe while making his way back to Wall, and along the way he begins to question if Victoria’s really worth the effort.
Stardust brushes up against the likes of The Princess Bride but doesn’t quite reach the same level of timeless excellence. In balancing all of the characters, plots, and themes of the story, Matthew Vaughn (best known for the cutthroat British criminal caper Layer Cake) seems to stumble a bit here and there. He doesn’t drop anything, to his credit, and manages to carry the story from start to finish without much extraneous fuss, but it feels ungainly in places and our sense of whimsy is slightly watered by a couple minor missteps. It’s like a top-notch performance of Shakespeare where one of the leads fumbles with a near-forgotten line, or a burst of turbulence during an otherwise smooth and pleasant flight. So Stardust has a hiccup here and there, but it is by no means a bad film.
The characters are charming, especially when we are introduced to Robert DeNiro’s swashbuckling (or is that “swishbuckling”?) sky pirate Captain Shakespeare. The setting is fantastical without being too overwhelming, letting the characters carry the story rather than relying upon the artifice of special effects. And there are some truly memorable sequences, including one of the most unique swordfights I’ve ever seen. It’s satisfying and fun, worth the time invested in watching it, but like most leftover casseroles it leaves you more with the memory of the original meal than what you just ate. Still, if you like fairy tales, high adventure mixed with romance and comedy, or unique characters delivered with whip-smart writing, Stardust is worth a look.
And now I’m craving the turkey casserole. Especially with fried sweet potatoes…
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.