This viewer can't have been the only one who would not have minded had Peter Jackson popped up in the middle of The Two Towers to quickly go over once more exactly who it was that elves, hobbits and orcs were referring to when they made mention of Boromir, Faramir, Oddsbodkins and Slartibartfast. Or his appearing in the opening minutes to The Return Of The King wouldn't have gone amiss either. Perhaps even both as, by that stage in the saga, so many had come and gone that I rather wished I'd kept notes as I had gone along.
That's the problem with fantasy films. Too often they end up with an entire AD&D 3rd Edition party of characters milling around one another on their way to confront the Beast, Thulsa Doom or anyone else that makes a bid for infamy in fantasy parts. Indeed, there may be no more reason to celebrate the home video and DVD than being able to watch fantasy films not one but several times, often for no more reason than to simply figure out what it is that is going on, where and to whom.
Even while watching Stardust a first time, one feels as though it is already demanding a second or a third viewing from its audience. It's not a particularly complicated film but it introduces so many characters, places and events in its first half-hour that one feels like jumping back and watching it all over again. In best summarising all of this, Stardust features Charlie Cox as Tristan Thorn, an idealistic young man who is unhappy with the pace of life in the quiet little town of Wall. One night his father, Dunstan Thorn (Nathaniel Parker), tells him that he was little different as a young man and that on the night he journeyed Stormhold, he fell in love with a beautiful princess. In their attic, Dunstan presents Tristan with the one gift his mother left for him, a magical candle that will take the bearer anywhere they desire. Tristan takes the candle and sees in it a means to get out of Wall Village.
In Stormhold, the King (Peter O'Toole) is dying. His kingdom will fall to his last surviving heir, one of seven sons, who have been quietly murdering one another over the recent months. On this night only four remain, Primus (Jason Flemyng), Secundus (Rupert Everett), Tertius (Mark Heap) and Septimus (Mark Strong) but before them their father lifts a jewel from around his neck and watches as it flies off into the night. That jewel is that rarest of things, the heart of a star and from the kingdom of Stormhold, it rises into the night sky to call down the glittering star Yvaine (Claire Danes) to Earth, who now wears the jewel about her own neck. But there are many who would want to capture that star for themselves. The princes of Stormhold demand the capture of Yvaine and the precious stone to ascend to the throne of Stronghold. Tristan wants to find Yvaine to bring to the most beautiful girl in Wall Village (Sienna Miller) a freshly fallen star to prove his love for her. But three witches, Mormo (Joanna Scanlan), Empusa (Sarah Alexander) and Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), also want Yvaine, only they want to cut out her heart and eat it to regain their youth and beauty. Alone in the cold, Yvaine waits, her starlight dimmed until she finds true love.
The unusual thing about this needing so much explanation is that Stardust isn't ever very much more than quite a straightforward romance, albeit one with magic, witches, a falling star and four princes who are keen to quickly reduce their number to one. As clydefro wrote in his review of the Region 1 release of Stardust, there is the clattering of the kitchen sink in this. Stardust will not let a good idea suffice when a dozen or so can be squeezed into the same amount of time and while it is not dissimilar to William Goldman's The Princess Bride, it also lacks the structure given to Rob Reiner's film adaptation by Peter Falk's Grandfather telling the story to his poorly grandson. One is forced to make it through the first half-hour of Stardust without any such guiding hand. The narration by Ian McKellan does little to help matters.
The change in Stardust comes with the first of the genuine laughs to be had in the film, a moment that arrives with the sight of the ghosts of princes Quartus (Adam Buxton), Quintus (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and Sextus (David Walliams). These three spectres appear behind the bedridden body of their father, one frozen, one with a large X imprinted across his face and another with an axe still embedded in his skull. That they are joined by Secundus mere moments later, his face still squashed from his sudden and unexpected fall from the tower in the kingdom of Stormhold. Later, these ghosts will sit under the sign of The Slaughtered Prince and pride something of a Greek chorus, cheering on the heroes of the film yet unable to do anything to aid them in their quest.
Like The Princess Bride, Stardust sprinkles these moments into its mix of romance and fantasy. Unexpectedly transformed into human form, Billy (Mark Williams) struggles to adapt to his new form and is as happy champing on a dishcloth as he is butting a unicorn. Robert de Niro has a great time in his playing of the notorious Captain Shakespeare, one who leads a cutthroat band of pirates but who has a liking for wearing scanties and ladies' underthings in his private chambers. There are more laughs with the ever decreasing number of Stormhold princes but the focus of the film becomes the romance between Tristan and Yvaine. And it is a very sweet romance with Yvaine shining brightest when she's near Tristan, whose small-village ways are soon left behind in favour of his being a swashbuckling hero, not unlike Westley leaving Buttercup behind only to return as the Dread Pirate Roberts.
Of course, it's a particular way of fantasy films that they bring all of their parties together for a final (and sometimes bloody but not so here) confrontation. Stardust calls everyone together to the gloomy castle in which Mormo, Empusa and Lamia have brought the kidnapped Yvaine. Septimus and Tristan watch through the window while, inside the castle, the lost princess hides amidst the caged animals. As with the plotting, so too the film with the comedy, romance and adventure all coming together in a finale that is as funny and exciting as it is romantic. And when it ends happily ever after, it is both expected but very welcome, even a second and a third time around.
There are many moments that, like The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, the action in Stardust is obscured behind CG, be it the bright green swirls of Lamia's magic or the long views over the countryside between the city of Stronghold or Wall Village. Unlike that film, though, the visual effects in Stardust never overwhelm the story and anamorphically presented in 2.40:1, Stardust always looks good. In particular, the image is crisp, sourced from a clean print and very detailed, often to a fault with there being moments when the special effects are made all the more obvious due to how clear the image is, particularly when Shakespeare's airship docks. However, this viewer would rather have that than any softening of the picture to disguise the visual effects, more so when one sees an image so sharp as to forgive the more obvious effects, such as the swordfight aboard Shakespeare's ship.
The DD5.1 is also excellent. Like the picture, the dialogue, score and audio effects are clear and sound sharp throughout, particularly so with Lamia's use of magic. There is also noticeable use of the rear channels, which is most obvious in the film's quieter moments, such as a distant horse and carriage while Yvaine and Tristan enjoy an embrace but equally so in the cracks of thunder that surround Shakespeare's ship. The effect is of a very well-produced DVD that does well by Stardust.
Commentary: Unlike the Region 1 release, we find ourselves with naught but a commentary with director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman. Fortunately, though, it's really quite a fine one. Neither says a great deal - at one point Vaughn even reminds himself that he ought to say something - but it's the good relationship between the two that is most evident.
That Vaughn and Goldman clearly enjoy one another's company and the impression they give is of a film that was a pleasure to make. That might not have been the case but it's certainly what they imply with their bits and pieces of trivia, their explaining what changes they made to Gaiman's novel (and how they did and didn't gain his consent) and how the cast, including people like de Niro, Pfeiffer and the comedians and actors who play the Stormhold princes, settled easily into the shoot.