De Niro can cancan
Stardust, director Matthew Vaughn’s enchanting fairytale/comedy based upon the novel by Neil Gaiman, will undoubtedly draw a lot of comparisons to a certain classic storybook film, The Princess Bride. Those comparisons are much deserved. A summer that started slow continues to gain steam with this, a fantasy adventure that provides wonderment, laugh-out-loud moments, and terrific star turns from Michelle Pfeiffer, Charlie Cox and a hilariously campy Robert De Niro.
Tristan (Cox), in love with Victoria (Sienna Miller), vows to retrieve a shooting star the two have witnessed falling to Earth. If he gets the star, he will win Victoria’s hand in marriage. In order to reach the star, he must cross a wall barrier into the kingdom of Stormhold, which is inhabited by witches and brothers fighting for the right to succeed the king (Peter O’Toole).
When Tristan reaches the crater, he discovers the star in human form. Her name is Yvaine (Claire Danes), and her presence on Earth has caught the attention of a witch coven lead by Lamia (Pfeiffer, getting another chance to play bad after Hairspray). Lamia wants to cut out the star’s heart and restore her own youth, which would certainly qualify as an interruption in Tristan’s marital plans.
As Tristan and Yvaine journey back to Victoria, trying to evade the witch, they encounter a strange pirate ship in the sky, led by the deceptively nasty Captain Shakespeare (De Niro). He manhandles the two on deck, but he’s a softy behind closed doors. Shakespeare has a secret (he likes to dance the cancan in fluffy clothes), and he’s very concerned about maintaining a rugged image with his crew. De Niro takes his bizarre, goofy character to great heights with his funniest role since Meet the Parents.
The real star of the film is Pfeiffer, who allows herself to look pretty damned awful in the movie. Her character is hundreds of years old but is able to restore her youth momentarily as she sets out on her quest for the fallen star. The more she uses her powers, the more she starts falling apart again. Pfeiffer plays her character’s physical deterioration as comedy rather than horror, and huge credit goes to the makeup staff that manages to make one of the world’s most beautiful women quite disgusting.
While Danes can be a charmer, her first scene with Tristan features a bit too much mugging, and her accent is hard to handle at first. Her work gets better as the film progresses, although her stumbling opening moments had me worried. Cox, who transforms from a nerdy love-struck pansy into a swashbuckling hero, gives the movie its true heart. And while Miller’s role is small, she delights in her few screen moments.
Like The Princess Bride, Stardust manages to mix modern humor into a fairytale setting. The subplot involving brothers killing themselves off in an attempt to grab their father’s throne is the film’s best running joke. The dead brothers, Rupert Everett among them, observe the goings on as black and white ghosts, deformed in the manner that they were killed (squashed faces, slashed throats, etc.). It’s this sort of dark humor that makes the movie more suitable for adults than the kiddies.
This is only the second film from director Vaughn, who made his debut with the enjoyable Layer Cake. The summer has had some nice surprises, and Stardust qualifies as a big one. I admittedly knew little about it when I attended a screening and walked out happy as heck that I had seen it. While the latest Harry Potter was a lot of fun, Stardust qualifies as the summer’s best fantasy adventure. It will be making people happy for many years to come.