I saw Stardust last night. Despite relatively liking it when I came out, despite its many faults… let’s just say that it’s gone down in my estimation in the last twenty four hours. I love fantasy movies– but I really didn’t like this enough. Fear the spoilers…
It was the trailer for Stardust that really got me worried. I’d read the novel back when it came out, and liked it a lot– Neil Gaiman is exceptionally good at conjuring up the older, pre-Tolkien blend of English fantasy, and it captured the right sense of blood and danger that makes the best fairy tales work. Yes, there was humour as well, but there was a sense of place, a sense of period and– most importantly– a sense of magic. As a result, when I saw the trailer for the movie version, which seemed to be trying to sell it as a wild Pirate of the Caribbean-style romp with lots of stars and swordplay and campery, I had to pause for thought. I’d already become slightly concerned when the film was being described in pre-production as “The Princess Bride meets Midnight Run”- a faintly nutty combination if there ever was one, but not one I’d ever in a million years use to describe the book. To be honest, the trailer looked like a mess, crammed full of the kind of self-aware winking at the camera that seems inescapable when making anything relating to fairy tales (god forbid we should ever take them seriously, of course…), along with DeNiro doing DeNiro, and Ricky Gervaise once again doing David Brent in a different hat. If it had just been a standard Hollywood adaptation, I’d have just sighed to myself about how fantasies are always getting mangled in translation– but I knew Gaiman was a producer, and did seem to be genuinely happy with the end result, so I decided to reserve my judgement until seeing the final product (unlike the utterly dreadful-looking version of The Dark is Rising, which I’m willing to bet hard cash right now will be downright dreadful). Let’s keep an open mind, I told myself, and see how it turns out.
Well, I kept an open mind, I went to see Stardust last night, and while it might be a relatively enjoyable movie, it’s an absolute dogs dinner of a fantasy movie. The central romance between Tristan and Yvaine is actually very well handled, and Michelle Pfieffer makes an excellent witch, plus there’s a fantastic turn from Mark Strong as Septimus who shows how good the rest of the film could have been… but in terms of storytelling and worldbuilding, it’s all over the shop. It’s easy to see why most of the decisions were taken, but I can’t help feeling that they’ve taken what’s essentially a small, fragile story and tried to twist it into a shape where it won’t fit. Whatever you think of Stardust, it really wasn’t designed to be a big rollicking camp fantasy adventure crammed full of thrills and spills, and the film is too busy trying to raise everything to a big-scale movie level that it doesn’t bother conjuring any genuine magic. Instead, we get some incredibly garbled storytelling, and scenes that seem to consist of nothing but characters filling other characters in on what’s going on in the plot, while at every opportunity, the film is taking a bizarre delight in reminding us how ridiculous and daft all this fairy tale nonsense is. The sequence where Lamia the witch constructs an Inn as a trap for Yvaine should, if you go by the original novel (at least, as far as I remember it– it’s been a while…) be an old-fashioned creep-fest. Instead, we get Mark Williams from The Fast Show in a pair of eccentric dentures pretending to be a goat, and a selection of gags centered around the farmer transformed into a woman that wouldn’t be out of place in the Benny Hill Show.
Yes, some of it’s funny, but this self-aware winking at the audience means it ends up with is remarkably similar to the issues I have with modern-day Doctor Who- a piece of filmmaking that’s so keen on entertaining and subverting its own world, it ends up shooting itself in the foot. It doesn’t even bother trying to establish a sense of reality and genuine period, so you can feel the genuine sense of shock when we cross over into the world of Stormhold- instead, we get lengthy CGI swooping shots, and completely ridiculous nonsense like the 96-year old kung-fu fighting guardian of the Wall. The script doesn’t do the sensible thing and stick with Tristan, at least until he gets over the Wall- instead, we get a lengthy and somewhat ridiculous sequence with Peter O’Toole taking a small eternity to expire. There’s no real ‘point of view’ character, and when anything can happen at any moment, it’s actually quite hard to be amazed and enchanted.
There’s a whole selection of moments where I had to wonder exactly what they were thinking, and plenty of areas where it would have been hilarious if they’d just known where to stop– particularly with the secret life of Captain Shakespeare, as played by DeNiro in the slightly arch, mugging style he’s now been using for years. The annoying thing is that the Captain Shakespeare material (which, like most of the second half of the movie, is invented for the film) is actually really good- it’d just work much better if DeNiro wasn’t playing the role. The gag stops being about a menacing Pirate captain who’s secretly a softly-spoken transvestite, and about how hilarious it is to see Robert DeNiro camping it up in a dress and doing the can-can.
It doesn’t even manage to excel with the visuals. Matthew Vaughan did a great job with his first movie Layer Cake in crafting something genuinely cinematic (even if the story made very little sense), but here we get an over-reliance on some suprisingly weak CGI, and a selection of tricks mostly hi-jacked left right and centre from Peter Jackson, particularly the overabundance of sweeping helicopter shots. It seems no scene was complete without a whacking great digital swoop across a landscape, and much of it ended up feeling like the location work in The Princess Bride- bigger, and more expensive, but by no means better. I came out of the film trying to like it, despite all its faults, but the more I think about it, the more it falls apart in my head. Mirrormask may be small and culty as films go, but it did much more with the art of filmmaking, and felt much closer to Gaiman’s unique style of fantasy than this ungainly hodgepodge ever manages. Not to say it doesn’t have its fun moments– but The Princess Bride, while flawed in many ways, knew the right moments to rip the hell out of its fairy tale world, and when to play it exactly straight. It gets away with lunatic swordfights, but still, somehow, makes you actually care when Inigo Montaya gets to say “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to Die!!” Sadly, in spite of all the effort, there’s nothing that approaches the heart and soul of The Princess Bride in Stardust– it’s too busy throwing stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks.
And then, on top of everything else, they take the end chapter– one of the most genuinely effective sections in the book, a chapter that manages to be both beautiful and tragic at the same time– and they rewrite it so that it’s a happy ending.