Once upon a time there was a movie called The Princess Bride, and it flopped. After it flopped, it became a big hit on home video. Ever since then, movie producers have toiled to recreate The Princess Bride formula, to little avail. “Why did it flop first time around?” you ask. Well, it flopped because (and I preface this by saying I’m a fan): it looked like a TV movie; it had the worst score ever committed to film; and because no-one had heard (or ever would hear again) of anyone in it. But, as I say, in hindsight, everybody loved it. Will everybody grow to love Stardust? It’s well-made, it stars stars, it’s funny and romantic, but… is it the new Princess Bride?
The story begins with the story of how our hero was born (astute movie-goers will detect this may be important later). Charlie Cox plays a lad named Tristan Thorn, who has his heart set on marrying Sienna Miller. Cox vows to Miller that he will fetch a fallen star for her as proof of his love, but the fallen star turns out to be Claire Danes (don’t ask; it’s that sort of movie) and Michelle Pfeiffer wants to eat Danes’ heart, and Robert De Niro plays a transvestite pirate… and fetching a fallen star ain’t easy at the best of times. Peter O’Toole is in there as well, playing a dying king with four sons who must kill each other to secure accession. And Ricky Gervais flubs a cameo appearance.
There’s a lot going on in Stardust. And most of it is good, but it’s still a lot for one movie to handle. Maybe it’s a case of excessive reverence for Neil Gaiman’s book, but some of these characters (i.e. De Niro) feel superfluous, and others (i.e. Gervais) are downright irritating. The story certainly barrels along, with a hey-nonny-nonny energy that makes room for everything from flying pirates to miniature elephants, but the lead characters (Danes and Cox) seem to get side-lined often, and Danes in particular never seems gets a grip on her star-ring role. Cox fairs better, and he looks like a ’tween pinup waiting to happen. It’s just… does everyone need to be here?
“What do stars do?” riddles Danes. In Stardust the answer is: “They shine”. But what do stars do when they stop shining? What does Michelle Pfeiffer do – for instance – when she stops being Catwoman or the chick from Scarface? For five years it seemed her answer was retirement. Now the answer is a comeback, playing a hag. I’m certain Pfeiffer is smart enough to pick a role like this out of a sense of humour. And she looks great (without qualifers), checking herself out in her magic mirror. Pfeiffer can seem awkward playing “good”, her cheekbones go to waste and her voice droops. But playing “bad” she acts turned-on; her smile makes sense; she’s elevated.
Robert De Niro doesn’t disgrace himself here as heinously as he did in Rocky & Bullwinkle (or, I don’t know, EVERYTHING for the past ten years), but he’s still crap. Somewhere around the time Bobby entered the restaurant business, or bought TriBeCa, or passed forty… he died as an actor. Here, it’s like watching Rupert Pupkin (his character from The King of Comedy) play Robert De Niro playing a pirate. He mugs, he twinkles… he acts like your uncle at a family Christmas.
Stardust isn’t bad. Its director, Matthew Vaughn, insures that. How this movie is a follow-up to his feature debut (crime story Layer Cake) is anyone’s guess. But he makes a go of comic-fantasy, and almost dispels your memories of The Princess Bride. What his movie lacks (I’m betting) is grown-ups who remember it. Given ten years – a solid run as a birthday gift – and it could rival Bride. But then, nostalgia is a funny game. It’s the domain of the undeserving, the misremembered. I wonder if perhaps Stardust isn’t bad enough. After all, The Princess Bride needed faults to make it special. No-one treasures childhood things for doing their job.