Monday, August 13, 2007

Over the Wall

Kathy & I caught a late Saturday show of Stardust, the movie based on Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess’s illustrated novel. (Not quite comics, it was prose paired with Vess’s gorgeous artwork.) The movie is entertaining, but never quite enthralling. There are plenty of fun scenes, and some great characters populating the fantasy world of Stormhold, but it never completely clicked with me.

It’s not that I’m comparing it with the original, either; it’s been so long since I read the book that I only really remembered the premise: Boy sees falling star in the distance, promises girl he wants to impress that he’ll cross the Wall into a magical dimension and bring it back for her, but when he finds the star, she’s a woman – and his Twue Wuv, in the Princess Bride vernacular.

With its tenor of whimsical fantasy, Stardust can't escape comparison to The Princess Bride. In some cases, it almost seems to measure up. One plot, involving seven fratricidal brothers spending their afterlife in a purgatorial peanut gallery as they watch their surviving siblings vie for control of the kingdom, is brimming with wicked fun. There are also some nice bits involving the leads, Tristan and Yvaine (Charlie Cox and Claire Daines), although they never quite have the screwball chemistry I was hoping they’d have. Ricky Gervais makes the most of a small part with his trademark patter, and Michelle Pfeiffer revels in her role as a witch in search of eternal youth (and not coincidentally, eternal looking-like-Michelle-Pfeifferdom).

There are other parts that don’t quite work, even on their own terms. Robert DeNiro’s swishy sky pirate is fun, but incredibly overplayed. The best part of his performance is actually not his performance at all – it’s that of his first mate, clued in to his closeted captain’s inner life, always ready with a sharp glance or an eye-roll when DeNiro forgets to be properly fierce in front of his crew.

On the whole – well, it doesn’t seem whole at all. It seems like a collection of bits, sometimes exciting, sometimes amusing, but never actually working together as a fully coherent movie. The movie is all icing and no cake – or rather, all the frosting filigrees of flowers and happy birthday messages, with barely enough icing to hold that together. Which is a shame, because Neil Gaiman can make a hell of a cake, and he never skimps on icing just the same.

Still, it's been too long since I read the book, and I can’t say that the movie’s failings are because it didn’t pay enough attention to Gaiman’s original, or because it took it too literally, losing the spirit along the way somehow. (Or, frankly, I may just be remembering the book as better than it was.) Be that as it may, Stardust is so eager to please that, somehow, it fails to delight. On the Muggle side of the Wall, that’s often the best we get – but we deserve better from magic.


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