I should stop kidding myself with the idea that I have to read a book before watching its movie adaptation. I was on a bit of a Neil Gaiman kick around the time that Stardust was released in 2007 so I had convinced myself that I was going to rush to read the novel as quickly as possible so I could experience the film fully informed. Almost a decade later I finally watched it thanks to a Netflix recommendation algorithm & hadn’t even yet even touched a copy of Gaiman’s book. There was a little fatigue on my end that came with reading a ton of Gaiman works in a row due to a perceived sameness in his narrative structures. More specifically, every Neil Gaiman novel read to me like a down-the-rabbit-hole adventure where a citizen of our realm gets swept up in the complications of a magical one. Although I tired of watching this formula play itself out repeatedly in his novels, it’s one that lends itself very well to cinematic adaptation & when I finally got around to giving Stardust a chance I ended up holding it just as high regard as previous Gaiman projects Coraline & MirrorMask, two movies I love very much.
The first thing most people will likely mention about Stardust is that it is the movie where Robert De Niro plays a crossdressing pirate on a flying ship. This detail is totally significant, as it might be the one role De Niro’s landed in the past 15 years that isn’t a total waste of time & talent (outside maybe his David O. Russell collaborations), but his fey pirate captain is just one of many players in a wide cast of winning eccentrics. Stardust is the kind of movie where every character is likable whether they’re literal star-crossed lovers or murderous goons with coal-black hearts. Boardwalk Empire/Daredevil‘s Charlie Cox stars as our bumbling, babyfaced hero who falls down the requisite rabbit hole to get the story kicked off. In order to retrieve a falling start to prove his love & devotion to a spoiled brat who couldn’t care less about him, our protagonist crosses the wall that serves as a thin barrier between our realm & its magical counterpart. He’s shocked to discover that his fallen star is, in fact, a beautiful woman (played by Claire DaaaaAAaaaanes) & on the journey to bring her back home to his coldblooded beloved, he runs into a long line of magical obstacles that include a coven of bloodthirsty witches (with Michelle Pfeiffer among them), a group of brothers determined to murder each other to claim royalty & their resulting ghosts, a unicorn, a humanoid goat and, yes, a crossdressing pirate & his loyal crew of cutthroats. Stardust shamelessly panders to the Ren Fair crowd & knows exactly how campy it gets in the process. The film’s mix of ribald humor, playful gender-bending, and lighthearted glee for witchcraft & murder all amount to a wonderfully silly adventure epic & mythical romance. Honestly, the only thing holding it back from being a (remarkably goofy) masterpiece is its horrifically shitty CGI, which looks exceptionally poor even for the mid-2000s.
I don’t know if it was the film’s unicorn connection with Legend (sans the wonderful Tangerine Dream soundtrack, unfortunately) or a magical Michelle Pfeiffer recalling her past roles in titles like Ladyhawk & The Witches of Eastwick, but my favorite aspect of Stardust was the way it felt like a throwback to decades-old fantasy classics. It feels like the era of titles like The Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, and The Labyrinth is long gone & it’s difficult recall the last time a fantasy epic was this winning. (Sorry, Harry Potter fans; I just can’t get into it.) The best example I can think of from recent memory was Upside Down & most people hated that one (possibly because they thought of it as shitty sci-fi instead of great fantasy cheese.). Are Gaiman & Gilliam the last two significant personalities still bringing this sensibility to the big screen on a somewhat regular basis? (Obviously, Game of Thrones is doing well enough on the televised end of things.) I’m at the point now where any cinematic adaptation of a Gaiman work is more than welcome in my life whether or not I’m committed to actually reading the source material first . . . or ever. The world is thirsty for this kind of romantic fantasy content.