For the second week in a row, I am reviewing a movie in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays the main villain. What are the odds?
The movie in question is “Stardust,” adapted from a novel by Neil Gaiman. It is sort of a modern version of a fairy tale, told with lots of humor and whimsy. Unlike movies like “Shrek,” though, the movie manages to feel new without constantly winking at the audience. It also becomes so earnest near the end that it would be sickening if it weren’t so fun and the main characters weren’t so likeable.
Movie critics everywhere have been stumbling over themselves trying to describe what the movie is about, so I guess I will throw my hat in the ring and give it a shot. The film starts out narrated by the great Ian McKellan (Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings”), who tells us about a young man named Dunstan Thorn, who lives in a little English town called Wall. It is called this because it is surrounded by a wall intended to keep its citizens from crossing into the magical kingdom of Stormhold. The brick wall is only a few feet tall and has a hole in one portion that the town never bothered to repair. Despite the town seemingly slipshod management, they have apparently hired a skinny old man to guard it. This is one example of the movie’s offbeat sense of humor.
Dunstan easily gets past the guard when his back is turned and meets a beautiful woman is enslaved by a witch. He doesn’t stay in Stormhold for life, but several months later (my guess would be nine), he is surprised with a basket on his doorstep. Inside is his newborn son, whom he names Tristan. When Tristan (Charlie Cox) grows up, he falls for the beautiful Victoria (Sienna Miller). Of, course, she’s gorgeous, but she’s also the type who loves to string you along. Things could be worse, though. She could’ve refused to ever talk to him. One night while they are alone, they see a falling star plummet to earth. He tells her that he would gladly go as far as he had to in order to bring it back to her. She tells she’ll marry him if he does it. The catch is, he’s got a week or she’s going to marry Humphrey, a jerk who happens to be handsome.
It turns out that when the star falls to earth takes human form and becomes Yvain, played by Claire Danes. She isn’t very happy when Tristan arrives to kidnap her. Meanwhile, three witches want to capture Yvain and eat her heart because it will make them beautiful forever. Pfeiffer plays the witch who goes on the road to find her, and is quite funny in the role.
While all this is happening, the king of Stormhold (Peter O’Toole) is about to die and he calls his many sons to his bedside. He tells them that he gained the throne by murdering all his brothers. Rather than leave the kingdom to his oldest son, he’s decided to let them duke it out too. Why? It’s hard to say, but he seems to find murder amusing. You will too, since the brothers not only act as foils to Tristan, but also create many funny moments in the film as they die off one-by-one. Their ghosts stick around too, commenting on the action.
As you can imagine, Tristan and Yvain encounter plenty of eccentric and fantastical characters along the journey. Robert De Niro plays Captain Shakespeare, the captain of a flying pirate ship who has a reputation for being the most brutal on the – not high seas … high skies? – but who isn’t what he seems. De Niro takes small third-act role and steals every scene he’s in. Ricky Gervais is also great playing a character every bit as untrustworthy and self-serving as his characters from “The Office” and “Extras.” Cox and Danes also make a charming couple. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything, since it’s pretty easy to see where the story is going from the start. But just because you’ll probably guess how it ends, the journey there is anything but predictable.
If you’re in the mood for some fantasy and some comedy in one package, “Stardust” is your movie. Everyone in the world has already compared it to Rob Reiner’s “The Princess Bride,” so I almost hate to do the same, but I sort of have to since it is an easy and lazy way to describe it, apart from the plot and the jokes. “Stardust,” though, has more elaborate special effects and isn’t quite as consistently tongue-in-cheek as that 1987 classic. They are most similar in that they both make have fun with the fairy tale genre and both have a big heart.
“Stardust” is rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned.