STARDUST - Blu-ray review

...charming and enchanting and adventurous and romantic and funny and hugely entertaining.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Stop reading this review.

Stop reading now. Instead, go immediately to your favorite video store or Web site and buy or order "Stardust" on Blu-ray disc. Don't think about it. Just trust me and do it. The film is charming and enchanting and adventurous and romantic and funny and hugely entertaining. Why are you still reading? I'll wait.

Are you done? Not yet? I'm still here waiting. Take your time.

OK, you're back. The thing is, in a disappointing era of sequels and box-office bombs, "Stardust" is a breath of fresh air. It rather sneaked up on me at the time, though, without a lot of fanfare, TV promos, or full-page ads. It won me over the old-fashioned way, by simply being fun; and despite some healthy competition from "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Ratatouille," "Hairspray" and other hit films, "Stardust" wound up as my favorite film of 2007. Maybe my favorite film of the decade.

If you're a fan of the whimsical, often satiric fantasy books by author Neil Gaiman ("Coraline," "Neverwhere," "InterWorld," and the hugely comical "Good Omens," among others), you'll probably enjoy "Stardust," too, the movie adaptation from director Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake").

Think of "The Princess Bride" on an even bigger scale or "Shrek" in live action or Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits" or "The Brothers Grimm" with similar laughs. "Stardust" is well crafted, well constructed (albeit a little overambitious), well produced, and well acted. It's a traditional yet gently amusing quest yarn, spectacular, adventurous, and romantic, as I say. While the filmmakers handle some of the characters and action tongue in cheek, they treat just as much or more of the film as a straight fairy tale, so you get to have your layer cake and eat it, too. Yes, it is also sprawling, biting off perhaps a bit more than it can chew, but the result is almost always engaging. I've watched it maybe half a dozen times now; each time, I begin smiling a few minutes into the picture and never stop smiling until the end of the closing credits. One could hardly ask for more.

The story takes place in two distinct worlds, one real, the other magical. They exist side by side in mid nineteenth-century England, separated by only a rock wall. Indeed, the name of the real town nearest the wall is, fittingly enough, Wall; and on the other side is the enchanted kingdom of Stormhold. People from the two worlds are not supposed to intermingle. The things that go on in these separate universes are a bit complex, with any number of colorful characters running through a plot that goes in several directions, but I'll try to be brief.

Young Dunstan Thorn (Ben Barnes), a normal human, sneaks across the wall one night, visits a young woman there (Kate Magowan), and returns home. Nine months later, the guard at the wall delivers a baby to Dunstan's doorstep, the fruit of the night's fling with the beguiling lady. Eighteen years pass, and the baby grows up to become a young man, Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), madly in love with a local, and quite superficial, lass, Victoria (Sienna Miller). One night, he and Victoria see a shooting star fall to Earth, and he promises the girl he'll prove his love by retrieving the star just for her.

However, the star is no mere heavenly body that has fallen to Earth; it's a celestial person, a beautiful young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes), and near her is a necklace and a crystal. But it's not just Tristran who's out to find her. At the same time, the old King of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole) is dying, and he has promised his kingdom to the one of this seven sons who can retrieve the stone. Well, the sons are so evil and conniving that three of them have already died at the hands of their siblings, and the others are soon to follow, leaving only one son, Septimus (Mark Strong), to recover the crystal and declare himself King. The other brothers hang around as a kind of comic, ghostly chorus.

Oh, but, wait, that's not all. There are also three wicked witches itching to get their hands on the celestial girl's heart, because they're all hundreds of years old and look it. The living heart of the girl Yvaine, cut warm from her body, will make them young again; and the most cunning sister, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), goes to claim it.

So, that's it then. You've got the beautiful young star child, Yvaine; the handsome young hero, Tristran; the nefarious brother, Septimus; and the even more nefarious witch, Lamia. And they're all after either the girl or the crystal or both.

Given the number of high-profile actors in the film, you'd think it would have to be good, but we've all learned better on that count from too many previous failures. Fortunately, this time it works. The actors are not thrown around willy-nilly, simply for people to see; their characters, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, are memorable, well characterized, and genuinely significant to the story. The two leads are most appealing, Charlie Cox and Claire Danes a delight, everything you could want in youthful innocence, spirit, naïveté, and attractiveness. As the head witch, Michelle Pfeiffer is ideal, the actress getting better and better as she gets older. The same year found her in "Hairspray," where she was deliciously vile, and here she's just as good, her natural beauty and dark wit both coming into play. As the old, dying King, Peter O'Toole has a small part, but he plays it with a sly wink. Likewise, as the surviving brother and heir to the throne, Mark Strong makes an appropriate cad.

But, did I say "wait, that's not all"? Well, that's not all. As the King's other six sons, the dead ones now spirits, we have Jason Flemying, Rupert Everett, Mark Heap, Julian Rhind-Tutt, David Walliams, and Adam Buxton. Then, we've got Nathaniel Parker ("Inspector Lynley") as the older Dunstan Thorn, the father of our hero. And Ricky Gervais ("The Office") as Ferdie the Fence (a funny fellow made all the funnier with the voice of a chicken; you gotta see it). And, saving the best for last, Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare, an eccentric pirate chief with more than a few surprises up his sleeve and in his closet. The filmmakers wrap up the whole thing by casting no less than Ian McKellan ("Lord of the Rings") as the narrator.

The humor is sometimes subtle, always amusing, and certainly witty. The adventure is continual (and sometimes quite exciting). The romance is sweet and affecting (I mean, what could be more passionate than a lovely maiden declaring her love to a rodent). The themes of a boy becoming a man and a star becoming mortal are touching. The epic fantasy score by Ilan Eshkeri is effective. And the visuals are always a pleasure (the Scottish, English, and Icelandic countrysides used to good effect, as well as the creative CGI). Moreover, the pace never slackens for a moment (despite the screen often being crowded with a good deal of busywork). Really, I loved it.

Video:
The filmmakers probably intended the movie to have a slightly soft focus, at least in parts, I imagine to underline the fairy-tale quality of the plot. This is what shows up in Paramount's MPEG4/AVC, 1080p, 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Blu-ray transfer. The reproduction doesn't always have the sharp outlines of some of the high-definition "Harry Potter" fantasies, for instance, but the softness is undoubtedly intentional, and in any case is hardly a matter for discussion because it enhances the story. The picture looks fine, sometimes gloriously crystalline in close-ups. Moreover, there is a small degree of print grain that gives the image a realistic texture, so you know you're watching a real film and not a glossy clean, digitally scrubbed picture.

Audio:
The Blu-ray disc's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound reproduction uses one of the most intensive surround tracks you'll find. One notices the rear-channel effects almost immediately, evident from the very beginning of the tale when young Dunstan Thorn first enters Stormhold. The sounds of the town put you dead on in the lad's position. What's more, the soundtrack is one of the most natural you'll find, especially noticeable in the smoothness of voices. Then, too, you'll find excellent clarity and focus in the midrange and a strong dynamic impact, even though the response seems a trifle light in the deepest bass.

Extras:
There aren't a lot of extras on the Blu-ray disc, but the ones we get are worthwhile. The first and most important is an audio commentary by writer and director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman. Following that is a 2009, multipart documentary in high def, "Crossing the Wall: The Making of Stardust." It's in five segments: "The Quest for the Stone...," about five minutes of introduction on making the film; "A Portal to Another World," about nine minutes on the screenplay; "What Do Stars Do?," about fifteen minutes on the casting of the film; "A Quest of Enormous Importance...," about nine minutes on the filming on location and in the studio; and "Have You Seen a Falling Star," about sixteen minutes on the movie's special effects.

After those items is another featurette, "Nothing Is True...," about ten minutes, again behind-the-scenes with the filmmakers. That's followed by five deleted scenes totaling about five minutes; a blooper reel at about five minutes; and a widescreen theatrical trailer in high def.

The extras close out with eighteen scene selections; English, French, German, and Spanish spoken languages; English, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
If you find the sum of the movie somewhat less than the parts themselves, so be it. One could make a persuasive argument that Neil Gaiman has a multitude of inventive ideas floating around in his head and can't restrain himself from putting too many of them into a single narrative. Consequently, "Stardust" is an episodic story; yet most fairy tales are, filled with one daring escapade after another. Just be glad this one carries you away on its flights of fancy rather than leaving you earthbound or puzzling over just what happened; or, worse, bored by constant, needless motion and loud, unnecessary sound. What's more, the high-definition Blu-ray picture and sound make a good thing even better.

And what do you mean, do "they live happily ever after?" As Captain Shakespeare would say, "Awwrrrrrrrrrrr...."

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
9
Extras
7
Film Value
8