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by Kathi Maio

How I Wonder What You Are

IT'S appropriate, somehow, that Neil Gaiman's Stardust originated in an escape from a tipsy party at a fantasy convention. Supposedly, back in 1991, Gaiman wandered out into the Tucson night during the World Fantasy Convention and experienced the full visual impact of seeing a star fall in the desert sky for the first time. An idea was born which he quickly shared with illustrator Charles Vess. A short comic series was thereafter introduced, which was then adapted into a graphic novel, which was then adapted into a full-length non-illustrated novel, which was then adapted for the screen (by writers other than Gaiman) and recently released as a feature movie.

That's a lot of adapting for one grouchy fallen star to have to go through, so it is not that surprising that the movie version of Stardust seems to suffer from a certain identity crisis.

There are other reasons equally easy to identify.

Mr. Gaiman's story about a young Victorian lad named Tristan who promises his capricious lady-love to bring back a fallen star in exchange for a kiss and her hand in marriage is, for all its quaintness, a fairy tale for adults. But grown-up fantasy fables are something Hollywood has always had a hard time doing properly. They know their way around kiddie classics, old (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and new (Harry Potter and Whatever It Is This Year). And major studios are certainly capable — especially when they utilize animation — of creating a "family film" fairy tale (e.g., the three Shrek movies) that can as easily entertain parents as their little ones.

But a fairy tale designed for adults that children might also enjoy is a much rarer cinematic artifact. Adults can be much more persnickety. They may not be more sophisticated in their tastes, but they are certainly more jaundiced in their viewpoints. Adults have a much harder time giving themselves over to fantasy than children. And today they find it practically impossible to give themselves over to love stories.

I think one of the reasons adult audiences, along with teens, 'tweens, and kids, flocked to see the LOTR series is that the trilogy was essentially a war story. And, for good or ill, war is something we believe in.

Romance? Not so much.

It's hard to name a recent American fairy tale predicated on a romance that really works as adult culture. The one that comes to mind for me is Rob Reiner and William Goldman's The Princess Bride, which is now (shockingly) twenty years old. Like the Shrek movies that were so clearly influenced by it, Princess Bride is very much a parody of the very nostalgic culture it was replicating and celebrating. Yes, it had a charming love story, but even that love story was filled with sight-gags, bad jokes, and plenty of physical schtick along with longing looks and daring adventure.

Clearly, the people who adapted Stardust toyed with the idea of making it a pastiche of traditional fairy tales, by way of The Princess Bride. But they did not. Was it because they thought better of it or that they just couldn't pull it off? I'd guess that it was one part the impulse to stay as close as possible to Gaiman's original love/quest/adventure tale, which is played fairly straight as a faerie story. And the rest of it was lack of skill with this particular genre.

It was Gaiman himself who granted filmmaker Matthew Vaughn the rights to adapt his fable. Yet Vaughn is a relatively inexperienced director, with only a British gangster thriller called Layer Cake (2004) on his c.v., along with producing credits for his work with Guy Ritchie on several modern thug capers like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), and Snatch (2000). That being so, Vaughn would appear a somewhat incongruous choice as helmer for this particular project.

After one pass on the script, perhaps he agreed. At that point Jane Goldman, a friend of Gaiman who is perhaps best known as the host of a British TV show on the paranormal, tried her hand.

The end result is a film that is not without its charms, but which ends up having no particular sense of style or tone. Hence the overall impression that Stardust leaves is one of vague disappointment. However, this disappointment — in all but one regard — has nothing to do with the movie's stellar cast.

Key to the proceedings is the casting of young Tristan Thorn, a lad from a peaceful but insular village called Wall. Tristan leaves all that he knows behind to go on his romantic quest, and the adventures he has along the way transform him from a shy and gawky boy into a noble and confident man. So an actor had to be found who could portray a lightning-fast maturation process, and do it convincingly.

This is achieved through the casting of a relative unknown named Charlie Cox for the part. Cox is fresh-faced and eager, as befits his role, and he captures both the good heart and the developing manliness of Tristan with an easy grace.

Although young Cox is a newcomer, he is surrounded by an experienced and respected cast. Sienna Miller (Factory Girl, Casanova) plays the relatively small role of Victoria, the willful beauty that Tristan initially pines for. But it is not until Master Thorn leaves his homeland for the enchanted but violent world of Stormhold (aka Gaiman's Faerie) that the action picks up and the big names arrive.

While Tristan hopes to collect the fallen star as a love token, others seek it for more sinister reasons. In one subplot, a sisterly coven of evil crones craves the fresh heart of a fallen star to reverse their rather advanced state of age and decay. One sister is chosen to hunt down the celestial body, and as she gobbles the last of the trio's hoarded youth, she becomes…Michelle Pfeiffer!

It is certainly refreshing to see a well-known beauty so enthusiastically inhabit a hag with thin hair and wrinkles aplenty. And the gorgeous Ms. Pfeiffer really seems to relish her chance to play withered evil. (Taken along with her other recent role as the tightly wound villainess of this summer's musical, Hairspray, you'd almost conclude that Michelle has decided to transition away from her earlier fame as one of Tinseltown's loveliest leading ladies with a complete and absolute vengeance.)

Meanwhile, at the castle tower of Stormhold, a murderous old King (Peter O'Toole) is dying, surrounded by his surviving sons — who, like their father before them, are not above killing their own siblings to get a better shot at a crown. Rupert Everett is dispatched surprisingly quickly, joining his several other ghostly brothers in a spectral peanut gallery that comments on the proceedings throughout. They take special interest in the efforts of surviving brothers, the most ruthless and enterprising being Primus (Jason Flemyng), who seeks the fallen star for the gemstone she possesses that will guarantee his ascendancy to the throne.

But none of the subplots is more fanciful — or more wildly divergent from the plot of Neil Gaiman's original tale — than the lightning-capturing pirate who, on a rusty sky galleon, plucks Tristan and his star from a cloud.

That pirate, Captain Shakespeare, is none other than Robert De Niro. With his tough reputation in film, he is easy to believe as the "ruthless marauder and cold-blooded killer" he tries to project. But this pirate captain has a secret. And De Niro plays it to the hilt. (Or should I say to the end of his feather boa?)

The Captain Shakespeare scenes, and De Niro's sense of fun with them, are among the high points of the movie. A cameo by Ricky Gervais as a scalawag named Ferdy the Fence seems to be cut from similarly extravagant cloth. The gawking Greek chorus of murdered noblemen likewise add a moment or two of fun to the proceedings. These scenes surely exemplify the filmmakers' haphazard inclination toward making their movie a farcical comedy.

But when the princely ghosts and De Niro's pirate queen aren't around, the movie seems to flounder for a sense of itself. Alackaday, I fear that the greatest problem the movie faces lies with the central character; the one who is the object of every other character's focus; the fallen star called Yvaine, played by Claire Danes.

Now, Claire Danes is a fine young actor, and she has been proving it for more than a decade. She is even a fan of Mr. Gaiman's work. (She actually wrote an introduction to the 1997 Sandman spin-off, Death: The Time of Your Life, as well as voiced San in Mr. Gaiman's English screenplay for Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece, Princess Mononoke.) Unfortunately, Ms. Danes may be miscast for the role of a large, gaseous, self-luminous astronomical body in human form.

On the other hand, I would be hard-pressed to name a female performer better suited to the task.

Gaiman's concept for the character is plausible enough, in a fantastical sense. If you were a celestial body, who fell — hard — to an enchanted version of Earth, injuring your (now human-appearing) leg, and immediately after your harsh arrival discovered that people of the mere mortal, royal, and supernatural variety were all hunting you down, most of them with violence in their hearts, you would not be a happy camper.

You'd be frightened, bewildered, and just plain crabby.

This is how the role of Yvaine is written, and this is how Ms. Danes plays her. The catch is that this type of character wears out her welcome on screen very quickly. (Less so, somehow, in a graphic or prose novel.) The cinematic Yvaine ends up looking and sounding like a high-maintenance beauty with a penchant for whining. In filmic fairy tales, these women are usually the evil stepsisters, and they usually end up humiliated or destroyed, just as the audience would wish.

But in Stardust, this bellyaching belle is actually the female lead. And that fact only contributes to the film's tonal issues.

You may be able to draw (or even write) a breathtakingly exquisite ethereal being that is cranky as hell but still absolutely enchanting. Trying to act one out is a bigger challenge. And Claire Danes and this movie can't quite pull it off.

It doesn't help that, with all of the movie's hexes and murders and chasing around, the relationship between Tristan and Yvaine struggles in its development. We are supposed to see love blossom between the young man and the celestial demi-goddess he first imprisons and later defends. But the bond doesn't evolve. It is simply announced — and in the most unfortunate manner possible. Yvaine proclaims her love to Tristan while he is in the bespelled form of a dormouse. (No acting on Charlie Cox's part required.)

It's a sweetly absurd scene, yet it's played surprisingly straight. And maybe that's the problem. If Stardust had been a bit more madcap and captured some of the loopiness of the old screwball romantic comedies (or even of modern European adult fantasy fables like Jean-Pierre Jeunet's glorious Amélie), it would have worked better as a film. Lending the proceedings a real sense of enchantment — and not just FX — would have been a nice touch, too.

Director Vaughn sadly never found a real vision for his movie. He actually told the New York Times recently that with Stardust he "wanted to make a nonfantasy fantasy movie." Even if I knew what that meant, I doubt that I'd agree with it. And what does that kind of a negative concept leave us with anyway?

Twinkle, Twinkle, Fallen Star, How I Wonder What You Are! And that goes double for your movie.

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