Once upon a time, Matthew Vaughan was chiefly known as Guy Ritchie’s producer, but one day he plopped himself into the director’s chair with the pithy Brit gangster flick Layer Cake and ever since then he’s been responsible for some of the most impishly fun blockbusters of the recent age. Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and the Kingsman movies all saw Vaughn and his frequent collaborator Jane Goldman bring their distinctive tone to cinemas, but how does someone make the jump from Daniel Craig selling ecstasy to vastly more expensive worlds of wannabe superheroes, groovy mutants and fledgling spies who like a bit of anal?
Short answer? Knock on the door of Neil Gaiman, apparently.
Young Tristan lives in the little town of Wall and is in contention for the love of the pretty Victoria despite being out of his league but one night they both witness a shooting far fall on the other side if the wall that gives the town its name and the young lover declares that he’s going to retrieve it as the ultimate statement of his devotion. This comes with numerous complications with one of the main ones being that beyond the wall lies Stormhold, a lush world of magic and fantasy, and the other being that the fallen star has taken the form of a young, human girl who answers to the name of Yvaine who isn’t particularly enthused about the idea about being served up for a romantic gift.
However, his task is going to be made exponentially more dangerous by forces Tristan isn’t even aware of; a trio of aged witches led by the vain and spiteful Lamia want to rudely carve out Yvaine’s heart in order to restore their youth (a lot more effective than putting pile cream under your eyes, apparently) and the last surviving princes of a royal bloodline known for crowning the last brother standing need a necklace in the star’s possession to claim the throne.
As Tristan and Yvaine try to get from A to B in time for Victoria’s birthday, the vast cast of characters merge and interact with one another with various agendas in mind, but who will be friend and who will be foe? What about Ditchwater Sal, a crafty mage who may unknowingly hold the very key to Stormhold’s future; or the famous Captain Shakespeare and his airborne crew of lightning farmers who carry a suprising secret, or even the ghosts of the slain princes who are cursed to stick around and witness their brother’s quest while still bearing the wounds of their various untimely deaths until a new king is crowned?
Tristan’s desire for true love and adventure is about to quenched in ways he’s never even dreamed of.
The screenwriting team of Vaughn and Goldman have always had a knack for bestowing the populist blockbuster with a sense of irrelevant and the absurd – not many other filmmakers would think to put Colin Firth in the middle of a church massacre and play it for comedy – but in their first collaboration they gave us an all the more gentle affair and adapr Gaiman’s novel into a self aware fantasy/comedy that’s two parts The Princess Bride to one part Midnight Run (no, really).
Essentially a chase/buddy movie that mischievously muddles the rules of the fantasy genre with a post-modern spin, Stardust is a zippy little ditty that deconstructs films that hurtle predictably toward their happily ever after by making the journey as sweetly off-beat as is can. No one’s journey in the movie is a straight line and every scene is garnished with an amusing sense of the ridiculous; at one point Michelle Pfeiffer’s youth obsessed witch transforms a goat into human form due to her need of henchman (Mark Williams with a piano key underbite) only for it to behave exactly how you’d expect a man with a goat’s brain. Another running joke that gets great mileage is the gaggle of murdered princes that miserably spectate on the race to become king like a cross between Waldorf and Statler from The Muppets and Jack from An American Werewolf In London. As Mark Strong’s devious Septimus and Jason Flemyng’s out of his depth Primus try to outwit each other, their mauled siblings look on with depressed detachment which is made all the more funnier by the grab bag of comedic actors playing them. Rupert Everett, Mark Heap, David Walliams, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Adam Buxton all tut and roll their eyes while events proceed at a breakneck pace which proves to contain a lot of the best laughs.
Admittedly some scenes don’t land quite so well – the appearance of Ricky Gervais’ fast talking Ferdy The Fencer is decent, but not enough that his character should appear of the bloody poster – but most curious of all is the plot twist that (Spoilers) Robert DeNiro’s fearsome Captain Shakespeare is actually gay and while it plays admittedly sweet on paper and it’s kind of refreshing to see him playing something other than a mobster or a curmudgeonly old man for a change, watching him “play gay” is something that a tad feels tone deaf a little more with every passing year.
With that being said, for all of its patchy spots Stardust still manages to be a genuinely sweet romp through a genre that often takes itself a bit too seriously for it’s own good and its appropriately starry cast all seem wisely in on the joke as they jostle for position. While they all snip and jibe at each other and the two lead’s initial disdain for each other becomes a grudging respect and more, it’s genuinely nice to see early roles for Charlie Cox, Henry Cavill and Ben Barnes as they were poised on the cusp of stardom themselves.
Vaughn’s eye for memorably flipping an action scene proves to be adept as his talent for casting and a climactic scene that sees Tristan dueling with a corpse puppeteered by a voodoo doll proves to be especially memorable, but that’s essentially what Stardust is; one big cheeky flip of the genre and how much you take from it depends on how much you appreciate how seriously Vaughn is taking not being serious.
With all that being said, while Stardust does feel a bit disposable along with feeling mildly experimental, its still got enough balls to temper it’s tale of true love and magic into something that manages to shine.