Stardust is based on Neil Gaimans 1998 novel of the same name, which was released illustrated by comic-book artist Charles Vess. Gaiman was reportedly reluctant about releasing the rights to the novel. He finally agreed to do so to Matthew Vaughn who was best known as the producer of all of Guy Ritchies films from Long, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) through Snatch (2000) and Swept Away (2002) and other films like Mean Machine (2001). Vaughn previously made his directorial debut with the London gangster film Layer Cake (2004) and was on the basis of Stardust announced for a time as the director of Marvel Comics Thor (2011), before opting to make Kick-Ass (2010) about a group of superheroes without any powers and going onto a real superhero film with X: First Class (2011) and the comic-book adaptation Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) and its sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017). Vaughn co-writes with Jane Goldman who has tuned the scripts for each of his films since Stardust, as well as other works such as The Woman in Black (2012), The Limehouse Golem (2016) and Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children (2016).
It is no particular surprise that Stardust has been released now at a point that cinema audiences are hungry for epic fantasy following the successes of Peter Jacksons Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) and sequels. Amid the other films clambering to ride on the backs of the fad for epic fantasy think of the cringe-worthy likes of Dungeons & Dragons (2000), Earthsea (2004) and Eragon (2006), as well as the relative disappointment of The Golden Compass (2007) Stardust is one that flies with a genuine magic. The shame about Stardust has been the lack of success it enjoyed at the American box-office. This in substantial part can be put down to a dreary trailer that looked like it had been blown up from a grainy video print and seemed to highlight the fantasy in the most routine and unmagical ways.
Certainly, it does take some time to get into Stardust. For much of the early part of the film, Matthew Vaughns direction feels flat. Seeing Stardust on a cinema screen you keep feeling that that is the wrong medium to watch it the film feels like it belongs more on the video or dvd screen. The medium budget shows through where you can see that the sets have been stretched to fill the screen, while some of the opticals look tatty. In these scenes, Matthew Vaughns evocation of magic seems a little too prosaic and he fails to allow Stardust to find an epical sweep.
However, suddenly around the 20 minute point, Stardust seems to find it and everything starts to come together. This is where Neil Gaimans story (or at least the way the screenplay has adapted it) starts to find a magic. The film has an almost symphonic feel to it in the way that Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman keep all of the elements dancing around each other with a joy that sometimes makes you want to sing out in pleasure. There are all manner of Gaiman-esque touches of imagination the Babylon Candles that can transport one to the place they are imagining; the princess captured by an enchanted chain around her ankle who must remain there until the witch that has imprisoned her is killed; the image of the combination dirigible-pirate ship sailing through the skies with nets trailing behind to capture wraiths from the electrical storm; people attempting to divine Yvaines whereabouts by casting runes and animal entrails; a witch who has been ensorcelled by Lamia so as not to see Yvaine. The theme of the witch/magician desperately seeking to regain their youth has surprising similarities to the anime Tales from Earthsea (2006), which came out around the same time, while the idea of the sorcerer who ages every time they use magic has been borrowed from Tom Bakers character in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973).
Sometimes Matthew Vaughns humour is too broad like the scenes with the ghost brothers looking on from the afterlife, or Mark Williams as a goat transformed into a human. Some of the performances do make you raise your eyebrows. There is Ricky Gervais cast as a comic fence where Gervais is only playing Ricky Gervais he even gets to slip in a variation of his trademark You having a laugh? line from Extras (2005-7). Although the piece of casting that has to be seen to be believed is Robert De Niro as a pirate. Now such an idea in itself is not bad, although De Niro surely makes the most caring and kind-hearted pirate captain ever seen in the history of pirate movies. The completely WTF moment that raises ones eyebrows to almost stellar levels is the scene where De Niros pirate captain is revealed to be a crossdresser and must engage in a swordfight while wearing a petticoat. It is a scene that almost overbalances the films delicate magic and fantasy over into some kind of Edward D. Wood Jr freakshow and makes you sit wondering what on Earth was going through the minds of all parties involved.
Michelle Pfeiffer who has been absent from cinema screens since White Oleander (2002) brings some class to the role of Lamia, a part that could easily have slipped into a campy one-dimensional caricature in some other actresss hands. Claire Danes seems a little miscast as Yvaine. She starts out seeming too much of a modern girl, although does eventually settle down to demonstrate the ethereal beauty that the role requires. However, Charlie Cox has just the right degree of handsomeness as Tristan especially once aboard the pirate ship and he gets his hair cut and is decked out in a series of natty threads.
(Nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay at this sites Best of 2007 Awards).