Fantasy on film is difficult these days: with audience detachment, irony and seen-it-all ennui at an all-time high, you really have to sell this stuff. Fantasy in the mode of Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust — a rollicking, full-throated adventure, light-hearted and dead serious at the same time, steeped in the sort of perfectly naîve wonder that can reach for greatness or backfire into ridiculousness — is hardest of all, precarious and temperamental. And it’s because Stardust walks that tightrope with such effortless skill and precision that its considerable excesses become not only forgivable, but part of its charm. A half hour too long? A few too many major characters left hanging? Colossally ill-advised syrupy pop serenade following the fade to black? Probably, probably, and yes. But with the possible exception of the pop song, all this oddly makes me want to give the movie a hug.
The film’s greatest virtue is its ability to distinguish between what can be a joke and what’s serious business. While no one will complain that Stardust is short on comic relief, it also knows that witches are scary, not funny; that those on a quest for immortality are not to be fucked with; that neither are princes chasing the throne, particularly if they are named “Septimus”; that you can actually get audiences to believe that a star knocked out of the sky can look like Claire Danes and fall in love with our unassuming hero. Vaughn is smart enough not to play any of this for laughs because he doesn’t have to. The movie’s energy and faith in the material are contagious.
Consider, on the other hand, the character of Captain Shakespeare, played with what I think may be brilliance by Robert De Niro. Shakespeare appears at first blush to be little more than a gag — an effete, cultured gentleman, possibly a transvestite, who must regularly fake acts of brutality to maintain his reputation as the fearsome captain of a pirate sky-ship. The movie knows that this — unlike witches and fallen stars — is funny, and knows also that it’s funny to have this character played by De Niro. But at the same time the character is integral to the story, and not just because he is the deus ex machina who saves our heroes from certain doom; even when Stardust gets a bit carried away, there’s no filler material. Captain Shakespeare fits unmistakably into its universe.
The plot is the stuff of classic fairy tales, if a bit more complicated and multi-layered: a teenager (Charlie Cox) unwittingly enters a magical realm after promising to bring back a falling star to win a girl’s hand in marriage; after finding out that the star is herself a young woman (Danes), he nonetheless decides to drag her back home and present her to the love of his life. On the journey he must confront the aforementioned witches and would-be kings, as well as uncover the mystery of his own birth. It turns out to be a lot to cover, but the film gets into a rhythm and starts to build real urgency. Part of the reason it works so well is that Vaughn doesn’t give in to the temptation to treat this like kid stuff — Stardust looks like (and, I gather, was budgeted like) a fantasy epic.
Even as the story hits the usual fairy tale points of interest, it actively works to subvert clichés on a smaller scale: at one point, for example, Cox’s Tristan stands in front of the mirror rehearsing how he is going to tell his father that he has lost his job as a “shopboy” only to have dad walk into the frame and interrupt. Though it’s an odd little scene, it’s par for the course. Stardust isn’t tidy, and it isn’t tight (there are at least three climaxes), but it has the courage to — as countless other family films admonish — be unapologetically itself.