It makes sense that Stardust should be the first adapted work by the intermittently brilliant British fantasy author Neil Gaiman to reach cinema screens. His charming fable of love, death and magic certainly isn’t his best work, but it’s far more accessible than, say, his ten volume comic magnum opus The Sandman. It’s witty, romantic, clever, occasionally scary, and – at a time when fantasy films are more acceptable than ever before – must have looked like a fairly safe bet to Hollywood execs seeking desperately for another Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.
But if there were ever doubts on the horizon for Stardust then that was why – it was something very different from either Tolkien’s endlessly-imitated leviathan or Rowling’s derivative kiddy fare, or indeed from most of the fantasy works translated to film. Gaiman’s tale drew more on the surrealism of traditional folk tales and the eccentricities of a lost, semi-mythic English rural culture, and took its influences from 1920′s classics like Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter and Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist. To give those unfamiliar with it some idea: Shop boy Tristan lives in the village of Wall, so-called because it sits beside and guards a boundary separating our world from another land of magic, witches, unicorns and conniving princes. To win the love of the beautiful but self-absorbed Victoria, Tristan crosses the wall in search of a falling star to give her as a birthday present, but the last thing he expects is for the star to walk and talk, and (in the film at least) to look like Claire Danes.
Could something so different possibly survive the adaptation mill intact, or was Stardust doomed to be hammered into the traditional filmic fantasy mold? Well, the answer to that second question is no – but a hesitant no, with plenty of qualifications. There are moments aplenty when Stardust looks to be losing its way: every time a celebrity pops up for a needless cameo, every time dodgy CGI rears its ugly head, every time director Vaughan sends his camera sweeping off up a mountain or into space for no obviously good reason. Worst offenders are Ilan Eshkeri’s horribly unimaginative score, which seems to have been cobbled together from scraps left over from Potter and Rings, and Ricky Gervais, who sticks out like a sore thumb amongst a cast who otherwise at least try to pretend they’re taking things seriously.
Yet, for every moment that’s crass or out of place, there are three that are charmingly, perfectly in keeping with the source material and the milieu that Gaiman draws from. The village of Wall feels just right, the two leads (Charlie Cox as Tristan and Danes as the star, Yvaine), are spot on, and in general, the magic of Gaiman’s work survives intact, thanks to an unusually faithful script. Most surprising, the two big name turns don’t fall flat – Michelle Pfeiffer is a convincingly vicious villain and De Niro manages to deliver a sympathetic character in the space of minutes, while at the same time hamming it up like an absolute madman.
The general sense is that, even if everyone involved doesn’t quite get it, they at least care enough to try. Enough of Stardust‘s peculiarly English wit and oddness make it through intact for the film to feel unique and, on occasions, very special. It could undoubtedly have been better, but it could have been much, much worse – Gaiman fans and fantasy lovers in general should heave a sigh of relief, and rush out to enjoy a movie that’s likeably strange, frequently dark and often hilariously silly, but most of all a genuine cinematic original.