'Stardust': A Magical, Extravagant, and Wildly Imaginative Fantasy Adventure – The Film Stage (blog)

Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

Once upon a time in the human kingdom behind the Wall, a structure so profoundly regular it simply had to have some magical properties, there lived a curious and courageous boy who had the potential to combine two worlds – the English and the fantastical – in an epic-sized adventure spanning everything there was to span. Yet he became an adult without doing anything monumental and thus is of lesser importance to this story, but his son – a nice chap with exceptional tenacity in his heart and not many useful skills, Tristan was his name – determined to change his stars. Little did he know, poor mate, that not only will he do that quite literally – you know, change a star by falling in love with her, and other stuff – but also combat evil witches, cunning princes, and his own monstrous gullibility. As well as learn how to travel by candlelight and/or editing techniques, and pick up the ways of a gentleman from a moustache-y pirate fellow called the Bard or something like that, and blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada…

Let’s try once again, shall we?

A long, long time ago in an industry that still did not have a crush on blockbustery cinematic universes and their volatile superhero inhabitants there premiered a film about a wide-eyed English fellow chasing a star which had been knocked off from the celestial firmament and had fallen to Earth in the shape of an attractive blonde gal looking like an incarnation of a tragic Italian lover. Needless to say, there were many rivaling parties for her heart, though some wanted to conquer it through more or less romantic means, while others craved eating it. Go figure.

Oh, yes, there were evil princes, gullible witches and cunning monsters. Of some sort. Still with me?

Full of whimsy, playful verbosity, technical trickery and visual panache, brimming with positive energy and larger-than-life archetypical characters and actors more than skilled to fill their well-worn shoes, this fairytale for adults did not, sadly, shake the foundations of the fantasy genre. Or make any real splash for that matter, though it did some good business at the box-office worldwide, at least enough not to be called a flop or a letdown. Stardust was its given name, though The Greatest Shop Boy Who Has Ever Lived Near The Wall, or TGSBWHELNTW in short, would have been much, much better and more audience-friendly. Anyway, the film was received as pure, escapist fun and quite quickly had to give way for the next best thing. Which is how the film industry works, really, so no hard feelings.

“Well you stupid cow! What did you think of your home for?” – Tristan the Romantic Lead

But Stardust was more British than American, at least its heart and soul were, which may explain why it stubbornly fought oblivion in the eyes of the mass audience. With great success. It withstood the test of time which made all of its original devotees, including the writer of these words, a very happy lot. Oh, and one more thing, after ten years from the moment it premiered in Los Angeles on July 29th, 2007, Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust has become the epitome of exciting cinematic fantasy adventure. A very much needed emotional and witty representative of the genre which is too often a feast for the eyes and not much else, and a truly impressive film on its own.

What is so marvelous about it? Some might remark that a combination of genre staples with some absurd additions and alterations, say, horny princesses, candid stars, scheming (and sometimes headless) witches, a whole range of spectral and full-blooded princes, daredevil shop boys, perverse kings, bloody soothsayers, boneless zombie warriors, bitchy merchants, silky white unicorns, ninety-seven-year-old ninja-like guardians, bad-tempered human goats et al. No verbose dragons or nefarious wizards in this tale, but still, a splendid bunch, don’t you think?

Others might observe that the trick lies in creating the fairytale kingdom called Stronghold by the way of the brothers Grimm and Neil Gaiman (from whose novel Stardust was brought into cinematic life), not necessarily kid-friendly Disney tentpole. To illustrate this point we should look no further than the scene in which the morbidly deceased prince Septimus (brilliant Mark Strong with hair, long black hair, actually) is remodeled through some kind of voodoo witchery into a frisky corpse fighting the film’s protagonist with its sword like its life depended on it. The clever staging and fanciful choreography of the fight are so beautifully grotesque that you can only watch in awe and wonder how, in the name of Mark Strong’s mullet, did they shoot that?

Another example of Stardust’s jet-black humor and dark wit comes with an image. Visualize a pub in a magical land which is called The Slaughtered Prince, if you will. Got it? Now, add several spectral figures sitting right beneath the sign, one with an axe in his head, another with his throat cut open, there is also one that looks as if he had fallen from great heights and there was no superhero to rescue him from meeting the ground. Oh, there is also a perverted one who voyeurs through the wall and peeps at our romantic hero and heroine doing things this type of fantasy adventure always leaves for the viewer’s imagination. Anyway, those are all gruesomely murdered royalty, forever inclined to roam this kingdom and comment sourly on everything they see until their Machiavellian brother, one prince Septimus, you know, the one with beautiful dark hair, kills his way to become a king.

“There are shop boys, and there are boys who just happen to work in a shop for the time being.” –Yvaine the Glowing Star

This may well be another way of specifying Stardust’s underlying charms – fantasy violence and some risqué humor. Or, in other words, two official reasons why Vaughn’s film was rated PG-13 without employing a single drop of red blood or a vulgar word (unless “hell” counts). But who cares if you have Michelle Pfeiffer’s dark witch Lamia slicing throat of a blue blood only to see his blood was really blue? Or the future man of steel Henry Cavill as Humphrey the gentleman who is such an uptight fellow that his most fun adventure to date consisted of travelling to Ipswich to buy a ridiculously expensive engagement ring. Or when you can watch Robert De Niro chewing the scenery as fearsome Captain Shakespeare (nickname taken from a famed writer, not shaking a spear, in case you wondered) who goes berserk in women’s clothing while dancing cancan. Right?

The character of the bloodless pirate with a penchant for art, culture and combing men’s hair is yet another indication of the number of ways screenwriters Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman tweaked and twisted the rules of the genre for their viewers’ pleasure. Case in point, the dying King, played memorably by Peter O’Toole in a role that is only slightly longer than the duration of a cameo, whose greatest dream is for his four still-breathing sons to murder the hell out of each other while fighting for the crown. There is a feeling of nobility and authority when the man speaks, and yet he behaves – and laughs! – like a bloodthirsty villain on the loose. When, early on in the film, the King tricks his second-born into standing in front of an abyss only to make one of his brothers push the poor bastard over the edge, we can only laugh at it. And get the point. The gloves are off, and everything we are about to witness will be an unpredictable ride acknowledging all the potential of the fantasy genre that has been lost on so many screenwriters.

This would be enough for many lesser filmmakers, a script cracking with wildly imaginative stuff and a director who can turn this into a fantasy extravaganza, but not for Vaughn and his dedicated cast and crew who made sure the film is rich in detail, the adventure effervescent with exhilaration, and the world looking like the best possible tourist attraction. Oh yes, this world is a wonder. What is truly remarkable is the way they were able to map the whole fascinating fairytale kingdom – the simple wall almost no one dares to cross, the border town packed with eccentricity, magical whimsy and all sorts of colors, the witches’ extravagant lair in a large crater so sinister it should have been used in a horror movie, the flying pirate ship teeming with equipment for lightning-catching, the enchanted forests, the king’s castle that could rival the Disney’s one in sheer architectural spectacle, etc. – in a manner it feels powerful, real, tangible.

“And, Yvaine, I have some lovely dresses; take your pick.” – Captain Shakespeare the Fearsome Pirate

Still, there are many more heroes to Stardust than its director/screenwriter power duo. The world depicted on the screen gained incredible texture and visual significance through the cinematographer Ben Davis’s lighting, composition and camera movement. When the characters are galloping on their horses or goat-ridden carts through the green hills or pale blue seashores of Stronghold, with the camera sweeping elegantly in long takes around and above them, you feel the sense of an adventure creeping in and slowly taking over your mind and soul. True, CGI feels dated at times, it has been ten years, but it somehow fits the overall look of the magical kingdom in which everything is possible, including croaking Ricky Gervais as a dim-witted merchant whose fate is sealed. On the other hand, Mark Strong’s beautifully lit hair never ceases to amaze.

Another invisible hero of Stardust is composer Ilan Eshkeri whose illustrious, vivacious fantasy themes complement the action and the characters in a way that feels entirely organic and yet delightfully offbeat and playful. Watch the already-mentioned galloping scene (they do gallop a lot in Stardust, actually) with Septimus, the seventh track on the official score, playing in the background and you will never look the same way again at galloping in a fantasy film. And then there are fancy and vibrant costumes from Sammy Sheldon and her department, making the actors feel real in the fantasy surroundings, regardless of whether they are down and dirty pirate misfits, or royalty who like to show off with their ornate lifestyle.

Let us not forget about Gavin Bocquet’s production design department which made everything more wondrous and multicolored. The blood is blue, the flames hellishly green, the king’s chamber is brimming with hues of golden, the witches’ lair layered with mirrors and cages filled with scared animals, etc. With all the textures and surfaces working for the overall impression that this is literally something out of this world. And then there’s the editor Jon Harris who, together with Matthew Vaughn, made Edgar Wright’s brand of visual comedy at least threatened. Just look at the scene when three princes stare at each other in terror because one of them just poisoned the wine they all drank – there is a succession of quick cuts on the widening, suspenseful, terrified, curious, brilliantly confused eyes which makes it impossible not to laugh at the situation and the scheming royalty. Or a scene in which Harris cuts between Captain Shakespeare doing pirouettes in full frivolous lady gear and his crew fighting for their lives with Septimus’s henchmen just few meters above. There are dozens of other brilliant cutting decisions in Stardust that make the adventure even more dynamic and fun to behold.

“A philosopher once asked, ‘Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?’ Pointless, really…” – Narrator the Narrator

Ultimately, it is not one thing but all of these aspects that make Stardust… well, Stardust. A truly exceptional fantasy-comedy-horror-swashbuckling-adventure of a film that deserves to be put alongside Lord of the Rings trilogy, Willow, Conan the Barbarian and other genre’s staples. You see, just because it is pure fun, with not that much psychological depth and pathos, does not mean it is in any way worse. Far from it.

And yet, despite its crowd-pleasing nature and the filmmakers’ doing everything they can to break from the chains of the typical fantasy style, Stardust has actually something important to tell you. Be yourself. Dream. Dare. Love. Experience. Change your stars. Fight villains. And at least once in your lifetime do immerse yourself in dancing cancan. If that is not something to live for, then this world of ours is doomed.

So, to paraphrase a certain rock classic that does not have anything to do with this film, for those about to dream, we salute you!

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

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