A funny thing happened on the way to Stardust becoming a blockbuster when it opened a few months ago in the U.S. - barely anyone showed up. Worldwide grosses were stronger and an autumn bow in the UK was moderately successful despite seeming a month or two early, but the fantasy film was still largely seen as a commercial disappointment overall. Now, a little over four months since its theatrical release stateside, the movie hits R1 DVD just in time for the holidays, when it most likely should have opened anyway. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and directed by Matthew Vaughn, Stardust is a minor epic in comparison to the cheeknumbing runtimes and burning ambition of the entries in the Pirates of the Caribbean and Lord of the Rings franchises, but that’s far from a complaint. A closer comparison might be The Princess Bride by way of Tim Burton if he took his sunglasses off.
The film opens (and closes) with narration from Sir Ian McKellen and talk of stars or faeries or some such nonsense. It’s 150 years in the past and a mysterious wall separates an English village creatively named “Wall” from a forbidden magical world. An elderly gatekeeper (David Kelly) stands guard to prevent anyone from passing through the opening in the wall/portal, but a defiant young man crosses over and meets a beautiful woman who’s been enslaved by a witch. Sparks briefly fly and nine months later a baby named Tristan shows up on the man’s doorstep back in Wall. Cut to 18 years later and the baby has become a floppy-headed adult himself (Charlie Cox) with eyes for local girl Victoria (Sienna Miller). She’s set to marry a character we all know is a scourge because his name is Humphrey and he has a moustache, but Tristan still has hopes of wooing her. One night Tristan is alone with Victoria when they see a star fall deep into the area past the wall. He promises to retrieve the star if she’ll marry him, but there’s only a week until her wedding. A determined Tristan finds a way past the wall in search of the star, now taken human form as Claire Danes. Meanwhile, an aging king (Peter O’Toole in a cameo) has to choose who among his selfish sons will take the crown upon his impending death and a trio of witchy sisters, lead by Michelle Pfeiffer as Lamia, covet the fallen star’s heart to renew their youth. A diamond, a ruby, and a De Niro make appearances as well, the latter in his most enjoyable performance in a decade or more.
The plot, however, is only tangential and necessarily so. Fantasy films need a creative series of events to drive the story along, but the more universal ones are smart enough to place limited importance in the what and instead focus on the how. And the how is mighty impressive in Stardust. It’s become far too rare to have a movie deliver guiltless fun without feeling utterly disposable and lightweight. You know, like fairy tales used to do. The children’s fairy tale seems to have withered away into a yellowed and musty corner in favor of the whiz-bang-pop glow of video games and the interactive furry creatures who laugh, burp, and/or dance. The fantasy enthusiasts who’ve kept Gaiman and other authors in business have obviously not forgotten though and filmmakers like Vaughn, here making an unlikely transition from the stylish gangster movie Layer Cake, are still finding new and interesting ways to bring fairy tales to life.
By never wallowing in self-importance or taking itself too seriously, Stardust manages to achieve an actual, honest-to-God good time without the snickering and clockwatching its more celebrated peers have almost intentionally challenged audiences with this decade. It refreshingly avoids trying to be smarter than or, in the alternative, dumbing down for its audience. The film somehow comes out as fairly original despite being unabashedly derivative of timeless parables and inviting comparisons to The Princess Bride. There’s a watered down dash of the styles of directors like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam too, without the extreme oddity and hypercreativity. Yet Stardust shoots for a much wider audience by appealing to heavily mainstream tastes, making its lacklustre box office showing and likely cult status in the future all the more ironic.
Paramount managed to somehow fail to attract ticket buyers for a film that literally appeals to almost every demographic imaginable. They did so by making it look dull and boring and uninventive. Instead of focusing on the many unique and positive aspects of a new fantasy film deserving attention, the advertising campaign seemed to exist solely as an attempt to piggyback the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Chronicles of Narnia viewers. Opening in the blockbuster-fatigue month of August probably didn’t help either. Now the film gets a Christmas-friendly DVD release and little Johnny and Susie can settle down over the long holiday and watch decrepit old witches, a secretly effeminate ship captain, and a host of ghosts as they weave through our hero’s journey.
This, I’m guessing, was part of Paramount’s dilemma on how to market Stardust because it’s not exactly a traditional children’s movie and there are some things young tykes won’t understand that their parents might wish to discuss with them at a later date. With discretion, though, it’s far, far more fitting for children than most of what’s in those other fantasy franchises and you get the good vs. evil, love is grand stuff too. There’s also plenty of adventure and action for those who enjoy that kind of thing and some romance for the ones who prefer Sleeping Beauty over Peter Pan. It actually seems like Gaiman and/or Vaughn tried to put something in the story/film to please almost every contingent possible. In lesser hands this would end up as a mess, but not so here.With reasonably good special effects that thankfully never overwhelm the material and almost uniformly excellent performances, Stardust also provides a lot of appeal for adults, with or without little ones. The humour is mostly on target and the kind that everyone can enjoy, including Ricky Gervais popping up for a few minutes and a collection of ghost princes cracking wise throughout. The story is timeless and told so effortlessly that it's easy to forget just how often movies like this fail, on the few occasions anyone even bothers trying. While the film’s 127-minute running time meanders a tad, including an ending that drags, and the overdone score that tries to rouse instead annoys, these are fairly minor complaints and easily forgiveable. Overall, it’s a delightful picture that should appeal even to those who normally avoid fantasy movies with a smirk and a roll of the eyes.
Paramount's R1 NTSC dual-layered DVD is presented in the original 2.40:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions. Image quality is very good and free from any damage. The progressive transfer has sharp detail, vibrant colours and really shows no complaint by my standards. There are several dark scenes, and, for the most part, these are handled quite well. It's not a transfer that will necessarily stun or amaze, and perhaps detail could be a bit stronger at times, but I can't imagine anyone being too disappointed. Exceedingly clean and without any major flaws, this is how a major studio new release is expected to look.
Audio is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround for English and dubbed French and Spanish. This isn't a movie that utilises rear channels too often aside from the needlessly thundering score, but everything hear sounds up to par. My biggest complaint concerns the comparatively low volume of the dialogue in relation to the score and other sound effects. This certainly isn't an isolated issue with Stardust, but it's an annoyance all the same. Those who enjoy extra loud symphonic blasts (sometimes for no good reason) will be pleased. I'd prefer a more even mix. Yellow-coloured subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish on both the feature and the supplements.
Speaking of which, there are relatively few extras on the disc and what's here is basically serviceable at best. A half-hour behind the scenes featurette entitled "Good Omens: The Making of Stardust" promotes the film with a look inside the production. We get to hear quite a bit from director/producer/co-screenwriter Matthew Vaughn, a little from author Neil Gaiman, and almost nothing from the actors. I found the discussion of Vaughn's reluctance to use any more visual effects than absolutely necessary to be worthwhile and interesting, as was the brief talk of shooting on location in Iceland, Scotland and across England. Next, there are five deleted scenes that run a total of five and a half minutes and can be played individually or consecutively. Another five minutes of bloopers are mostly comprised of actors laughing, falling, and having expletives bleeped. These are maybe not for the kids. Both sections are only mildly entertaining, non-anamorphic, and littered with time stamps and "Property of Paramount Pictures" written in all caps across the screen. The deleted scenes are fairly insubstantial and better left out of the movie, especially the misguided alternate ending.
Finally, we have an option to watch the theatrical trailer (2:26) that shows just how confused the studio was on how to market this film and several previews (Transformers, Shrek the Third, the crayon vomit It's a Wonderful Life, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Arctic Tale) that add up to just over 8 minutes total. The last two trailers also play automatically when the disc is put in, but can be skipped.
One hallmark of a good film is when it transcends the limitations of its genre and makes unlikely viewers into fans. Stardust is not without flaw, but it’s a great big grin of a movie and much better than its marketing promises. There’s a substantial audience just waiting for something like this and I hope they find it.