MOVIES THAT DON’T SUCK: Return to a time of witches, kings and magic things with ‘Stardust’

As I was attempting a last, futile push to get anything done on a Saturday night, I was called by some friends asking for a movie suggestion.

Picking movies for your friends is bad enough when you’re with them, but at least they have to think about your feelings while you’re in the room. Although, to be honest, I doubt my friends would give me that benefit anyway.

But god help you if they call. You might as well end the friendship right then and there, especially when one of the audience members (my editor, Aishwarya Nadgauda) says that she typically uses my blog as an “elimination list” rather than a suggestion list.

I could practically hear the judgment all the way from Folsom.

The only request that everyone could agree upon was “something like ‘The Princess Bride,’” which was a tall order, as the only thing like “The Princess Bride” is “The Princess Bride.”

After 15 minutes of looking through my Netflix queue (and many failed suggestions), I saw the movie adaptation of one of my favorite books from when I was younger: Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust.”

It had a bride and it had a princess. Close enough.

As it turned out, they only got about halfway through the movie, because Aishwarya hated it and fell asleep.

You can’t win them all, I guess. Although that didn’t stop me from getting distracted from my work and watching the whole thing.

As far as movie adaptations go, “Stardust” ranks among my favorite.

The story follows Tristran Thorn, a boy who seeks to win the favor of a village girl by bringing her a fallen star,  an impossible task to those of us who know falling stars are really burnt-up chunks of space rock. However, this fallen star is special, because it fell on the other side of the Wall, the dividing line between the quaint English countryside and the mystical kingdom of Stormhold.

In Stormhold, stars are people. This particular fallen star is named Yvaine and isn’t particularly keen on the whole “being kidnapped” idea.

The real problem for Tristran is that other people also saw Yvaine fall, and they aren’t exactly the friendliest. Among them are the princes of Stormhold, who each vies to capture her (and the amulet around her neck) to win the throne, and the witch queens, who seek to cut out Yvaine’s heart to achieve immortality. “Stardust” is a successful adaptation in every sense of the word.

The trick to making the move from print to screen (especially to archaically styled fantasy novels) is to fill in the gaps left to the readers’ imagination.

The book itself is a homage to pre-Tolkien English fantasy, a genre that makes for great literature but slow, boring movies.

Just as “The Lord of the Rings” used action to speed up its long plot considerably, “Stardust” uses comedy to bring the slower story of the novel up to a speed today’s audiences are used to.

For example, the nameless captain in the book is transformed into Captain Shakespeare (Robert de Niro), a flamboyant transvestite Anglophile who only took the job for his father (and to preserve his manly reputation).

Of course, all of the added comedy changes the overall tone of the film, but that’s what makes it a great adaptation, rather than a flat transfer of source material to movie format.

The atmosphere of fantasy, however, is not lost.

Special effects are applied liberally, but not on such a grand scale as to make it over-reliant on the “wow” factor. Rather, the fantasy world acts as a backdrop to the drama unfolding before us. The unicorns, witches, skyships and mountain-top kingdoms are all commonplace to everyone except Tristran and the audience.

Save for de Niro as Captain Shakespeare, there are no real standout characters. Some notable roles are Mark Strong, who further solidifies his typecast as a “scary dude” (Prince Septimus of Stormhold), and Charlie Cox, whose already boyish face makes his role as the wide-eyed Tristran all the better.

Claire Danes is quite good as Yvaine, although there isn’t really much to her character. But for a archetypical “damsel in distress” character, Yvaine is as strong as it gets.

That the most important characters in the book are rather undeveloped doesn’t mean that the plot itself is thin. After all, this is a fairy tale. The witches are the “bad guys” (well, Septimus too, but he’s just a bad guy in general), Tristran is the hero, and Yvaine is the “princess.”

It is, we must remember, a harkening back to old fairy tales, an effort to remember our memories of late nights spent reading about heroes and villains, princes and princesses, and elves and fairies.

And what good memories they are.

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