Last night I had a chance to watch a movie I kept meaning to get around to at some point, Stardust. Released last year in an orgy of marketing, with all sorts of ‘it’s an adult fairy tale’ gibberish and bad tag lines, I figured it would be something that at the least was fundamentally ill-targeted. So it proved to be, being a pretty big flop in the US, though it made back enough elsewhere in the world to be a modest hit.
It’s based on a book by one of the more ubiquitous characters on the creative front these days, Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s reputation has been long cemented for years, as has his omnipresence — I actually first encountered him thanks to the first edition of his loving but clear-headed biography of Douglas Adams, Don’t Panic, and that was back in 1987 or so. Shortly afterward there was a little something called The Sandman which got off the ground, and there’s been plenty of stuff he’s written all over the place since.
I’m an appreciator of Gaiman rather than a hyperfan, but I’m glad he’s around — much like, say, his countryman and fellow ex-pat in America Clive Barker, he has his hobbyhorses and stylistic tics, but aiming for breadth in terms of what to try and do in terms of media — books, illustrated collaborations, films, stage plays in Barker’s case and of course comics in Gaiman’s — has allowed them a variety of means to test things out, often with a lot of open bleedover. (An indirect comparison might be with Judd Apatow, whose films and script collaborations and so forth all seem to inhabit the same cockeyed universe; as with Barker and Gaiman, not everything is golden but there’s a cachet at work nonetheless.)
Gaiman’s recent efforts in film haven’t been the most all around successful, though — it would be interesting to see if he ever straight up directs one, though. His best that I’ve seen is, I think unsurprisingly, MirrorMask, done in collaboration with his best illustrative partner Dave McKean. Done on the fly to a large extent as a budget shoot with rough edges that were imaginatively worked into the final result, it’s the nth variation on an Alice in Wonderland approach, perhaps, but handled very nicely, with some killer performances to go with it. One hopes they might try for something else in the future but time will tell (for all I know it’s happening right now).
Gaiman’s been edging around Hollywood off and on for a bit, though — a bit like Barker once regularly did and definitely like what his friend Guillermo del Toro has been doing lately — and not always to good effect. The less said about Beowulf the better, but I’m happy to lay that as much at the feet of one of my least favorite directors, Robert Zemeckis, and the fact that the script was a collaboration as I am to say that Gaiman should have done better. Stardust lies between the two poles of those movies — far slicker all around than MirrorMask, for better and for worse, it’s definitely not Beowulf‘s clunky revisioning at work either. But ultimately Gaiman himself didn’t handle the script for Stardust; instead fellow Brit Matthew Vaughn cowrote the adaptation and directed.
This all as background — the movie does a surprisingly deft job at holding up under its superstructure and, in fact, is far lighter and sweeter than I would have initially given it credit for. Not every scene works — I counted about three or so that were ‘ah right, lovey dovey dialogue and all,’ for instance — but my fear was that instead of winsome wit we’d be getting clunky treacle. It steers pretty close to that more often than not; Gaiman’s always been fond of broad humor as much as verbal to start with and a movie adaptation can tend to push that further forward, while similarly the fact that he’s a happy if not hapless romantic means that element can be pushed further forward as well. (Sandman would not have worked as well as it did without the inclusion of those two elements along with everything else, for instance, but this isn’t Sandman.) It definitely knows its self-conscious roots — both Labyrinth and The Princess Bride are clear sources of some of what’s going on, at least in terms of English language films, while other elements nod to eternal touchstones like Cocteau and more recent ones like Miyazaki.
The familiarity of plenty of the story basics, though, is what gives things a chance to get tweaked and twisted a little around the side. If Robert deNiro’s fallen prey to complaints that he’s phoning in about every role these days, his cross-dressing air pirate captain gets the kind of big performance it needs, as well as a pretty outrageous joke towards the end at the expense of Sienna Miller’s character (no bad thing, really). Meanwhile the squabbling between the seven brothers fighting for the throne of the kingdom (well, four initially — the other three being dead but not being quiet about it), the sex change swap and, of course, the wicked witches are among the many totally obvious but still just twitched here and there enough bits that help make it more enjoyable in the end than I would have guessed.
Speaking fairly, there’s plenty which could grate — anyone sick of certain actors and actresses won’t find their opinions changed in the end, while someone like Ricky Gervais, in the admittedly thankless role of ‘Ferdy the Fence,’ one of Gaiman’s most overtly twee names ever, is well on the way to the kind of luvviedom he obviously both hates *and* loves in Extras. And if you’re not fond of the continuing impact of CGI — or not as tolerant of the kind of swooping shots borrowed from The Lord of the Rings by seemingly everyone these days — your patience will swiftly ebb. But I let myself go, I thought it was a treat, Claire Danes did a fun turn as the star itself, and the whole thing looked gorgeous. Far worse ways to spend a Monday night.