Stardust has a problem with overconfidence. The overconfidence in the CG is one thing, but would be easily excusable if director Vaughn didn’t double down and go through tedious effects sequences. Ben Davis’s photography keeps Stardust lush, whether in the magic world or the real world–but that lushness doesn’t help with the CG. The CG is excessive and exuberent–it’s always supposed to be obvious–it’s just not good enough. The CG, technically, isn’t there.
The other overconfidence is the stunt casting.
The film starts in a prologue setting things up. England. Nineteenth century. There’s a small English town with a nearby wall. No one can cross the wall. There’s a nonagenarian (David Kelly) who wields a staff to keep people away. One day, intrepid young man Ben Barnes crosses the wall and gets seduced by a mystery woman.
Nine months later, he gets a baby. Eighteen years later, the baby has grown into “protagonist” Charlie Cox. Stardust, from its narration (by Ian McKellen, natch), is going to be about Cox embracing his destiny as a hero. Until then, he’s just going to make a fool of himself for town beauty Sienna Miller. Cox wants to marry Miller, Miller wants to marry Henry Cavill. But then they see a falling star and Cox gets Miller to promise to through Cavill over for him if he gets her the star.
Except it’s not just a falling star, it’s also the ruby necklace of the King of the magic world, called Stormhold. Stardust doesn’t get into the nitty gritty, like how can this magical world exist across a wall in England and what would’ve happened to it in the hundred years between the movie’s present action and its release date. Because it’s just fantasy. Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman don’t have to take any responsility for character if they keep it just genre.
The scene setting up Stormhold is where the stunt casting starts. Peter O’Toole is the dying king, Rupert Everett is his presumed heir. Presumed because O’Toole’s sons have to kill one another for the throne. The ghosts of the defeated princes hang around and watch the film’s events, sometimes offering commentary. They’re fun ghosts, even if they were all trying to kill one another and the film’s heroes.
In the biggest of the prince roles is Mark Strong. He’s not stunt casting. He’s got Inigo Montoya’s hair and Count Rugen’s personality.
So the star falls. Except since it lands in magic land, it’s not a hunk of space metal, it’s Claire Danes. Stars are sentient and they watch the earth because human beings’ love is unique throughout the cosmos. Vaughn and Goldman’s dialogue, which is so entirely expository it’s an accomplishment, is about as obvious and artless as that sentence. Vaughn seems to think he can get away with it because of Davis’s photography, the CGI, and Ilan Eshkeri’s enthusiastic, original, and not great, not bad score. He’s wrong.
Anyway. Cox finds Danes and kidnaps her. He’s going to let her go after he brings her to Miller. Danes points out the questionable behavior of kidnapping someone for a gift, but Cox doesn’t care. His character to this point is: half-prince of magic land, personal failure (he wasn’t good in school at anything, including fencing), and just fired shop boy. Cox doesn’t even get to dwell on being half-magic. He’s too busy dragging Danes through the woods.
Oh, and Danes has the necklace.
So Strong and the other princes are looking for the necklace. Because O’Toole says they don’t just need to kill each other, they also have to get the necklace.
And then Michelle Pfeiffer is a witch looking for Danes to kill her and eat her heart to make herself young. Pfeiffer’s got two sisters, Joanna Scanlan and Sarah Alexander, who ought to be stunt casting and aren’t. The makeup on the witches is decrepit faces, but not overly so on the bodies. Like Vaughn didn’t want to be too gross. The witches get played for laughs occasionally, so they can’t be too visually unsettling.
Pfeiffer is terrible with Scanlan and Alexander. Maybe she can’t figure out how to act under the makeup. Once she gets out on her own (and out of the makeup), she slowly gets better. By the end of the movie, she’s almost good, even with some makeup back. She has zero chemistry with Scanlan and Alexander, which doesn’t help things.
Of course, Vaughn doesn’t direct for that sort of thing. Chemistry. Pah. Danes falls for Cox after he saves her from Pfeiffer’s inital trap and Danes decides to help him win Miller’s hand, delivering herself as a gift. Because she really, deep down, loves Cox. Danes, I mean. She’s sacrificing herself. It might make sense if Danes had her stars watch earth because of perfect human love monologue early on, but it’s end of the second act stuff. She’s just making poor choices as far as anyone knows until then.
She also has a unicorn for a while.
Eventually Danes and Cox end up on Robert De Niro’s sky pirate ship. De Niro should be Stardust’s stunt casting at its worst. He’s a closest, effeminate, aging, anglophile gay sky pirate. He has to hide everything from his crew of tough sky pirates. They mine lightning to sell to Ricky Gervais (who’s actually the worst stunting casting). They capture Danes and Cox and De Niro confides in the young couple.
He teaches them to dance, he teaches Cox how to sword fight, he does a makeover on Cox, giving him some romance novel cover hair. He also gives them new outfits.
So then they’re ready for the multiple showdowns–Strong and the princes, Pfeiffer and the witches, Melanie Hill’s traveling salesperson witch who has enslaved Cox’s mom (Kate Magowan). But Cox isn’t look for his mom, because he forgot about her once he kidnapped Danes and he never comes back to it.
Cox is a bad kid. No spoilers, but Nathaniel Parker (as the grown-up dad) gets a shockingly thankless part. You’d think being raised by a single dad in nineteenth century small village England would have an effect on Cox’s character, but since he doesn’t get a character until he gets the hair cut… you’d be wrong.
There’s also a thing where Vaughn’s “magical” direction of magic land is exactly the same as his idealized English village. Cox is just traveling through Disney movies, one without magic to one with magic.
Cox never gets to be the protagonist. Top-billed Danes doesn’t either. They both play second fiddle to the bigger name stars, Pfeiffer and De Niro. Where it’s unfair is how Strong gets to do his own thing without Pfeiffer or De Niro and isn’t even a serious antagonist.
Cox and Danes are fine. Their writing is often lousy. De Niro is not fine. It’s an insensitive, if enthusiastic, caricature. Vaughn’s poor direction of actors is most obvious with De Niro. De Niro’s vamping it up and Vaughn directs it all to beg for a laugh. Ha. Robert De Niro is a miserable, closest gay guy who’s worried his only friends will ostracize or kill him if they know he’s gay. But, hey, it’s De Niro in drag.
Then there’s how Danes is a simply damsel, even if she’s an anthropomorphized luminous spheroid of plasma. Cox is the hero prince, even if he’s been passive in every single one of his scenes. Vaughn needed some confidence in his leads.
Stardust is occasionally amusing, when the bad performances and bad writing aren’t too overwhelming. Danes and Cox are quite likable. The movie’s just got a weak script and lacking direction.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn; screenplay by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Jon Harris; music by Ilan Eshkeri; production designer, Gavin Bouquet; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Michael Dreyer, Gaiman, and Vaughn; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Charlie Cox (Tristan Thorn), Claire Danes (Yvaine), Robert De Niro (Captain Shakespeare of the Caspartine), Michelle Pfeiffer (Lamia), Mark Strong (Prince Septimus), Sienna Miller (Victoria Forester), Melanie Hill (Ditchwater Sal), Ricky Gervais (Ferdy), Kate Magowan (Princess Una), Joanna Scanlan (Mormo), Sarah Alexander (Empusa), Jason Flemyng (Prince Primus), Rupert Everett (Prince Secundus), Nathaniel Parker (Dunstan Thorn), Henry Cavill (Humphrey), David Kelly (the Wall Guard), and Peter O’Toole (the King); narrated by Ian McKellen.