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Stardust

At the Paramount panel for Stardust, Gaiman provided this description of his 1998 book,

Stardust

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NEIL GAIMAN: "Its about a young man who goes off in search of a fallen star and when he finds it, its not exactly what he was expecting, its a young lady with a broken leg in a foul mood, um, there are several people looking for her for various reasons including some princes who are after the necklace that shes got, some of these princes are dead."

JANE GOLDMAN: "Are you following this?"

Thats his screenwriter Jane Goldman. Hearing Gaiman describe the story you get a sense of his humor and the way he likes to tweak genre expectations. His character Tristran (Charlie Cox) is a rather awkward youth who is transformed by his journey to find a fallen star and bring it back to the girl of his dreams. But the star, Yvaine (Claire Danes), proves prickly at first and then irresistible. Along the way they encounter a witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) who need the star's heart to become young, and a pirate captain named Shakespeare (Robert DeNiro) who offers unexpected assistance.

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Claire Danes and Charlie Cox in Stardust (Paramount)

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Gaiman's story delivers a fantasy with romance and adventure but also with sly humor. When asked about the film adaptation of his novel, Gaiman had a very pragmatic attitude. He noted that the very nature of film is to simplify. So the film Stardust is, by necessity, an abridged version of the book. But trimming the plot down isnt nearly as difficult a task as getting the tone right. Gaiman's fantasy has wit, magic, and charm. Director Matthew Vaughn (who previously did the tough gangster film Layer Cake ) and writer Jane Goldman try to deliver something thats a cross between The Princess Bride and Lord of the Rings. They succeed best with the romance and humor but come up short in terms of creating a fantasy world that feels real. Stardust could use some of Peter Jackson's attention to detail in creating the fantasy world of Faerie and Wall.

But Vaughn and Goldman don't have Jackson's obsessiveness with the material. They give us the surface of Gaiman's novel and leave viewers to fill in the details. There are some impressive sets and production design but then there's inconsistency on the finer points. For example, Michelle Pfeiffer's witch ages each time she uses magic but a small dose of magic takes a bigger toll on her than creating an entire Inn. This point is minor but when you add up a number of these it makes the fantasy world harder to buy into.

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Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert DeNiro in Stardust (Paramount)

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Pfeiffer's performance does help the film, it's deliciously wicked and with a slightly contemporary feel as she deals with the annoying problems of aging. DeNiro, on the other hand, has fun in his early scenes and captures a bit of the feel of his commando plumber from Brazil. In these early scenes his gruff exterior coupled with gentle advice reveal a nice side to DeNiro's on screen persona. But then he goes embarrassingly over the top. It's not entirely his fault, Vaughn and Goldman must shoulder much of the blame as DeNiro goes from playing a character to becoming the victim of stunt casting.

The film actually succeeds best with its two young leads, Claire Danes and Charlie Cox. They manage an innocence and wonder necessary for the story to work. They make us believe that this unlikely pair could fall in love. Cox, in particular, pulls off a delightful transformation from a lovesick and slightly goofy boy to a confident young man. Cox's Tristran also conveys the essence of Gaiman's book about seeking your hearts desire and being surprised at where that journey takes you, and discovering that what you want is something entirely different than you had imagined.

Stardust (rated PG-13 for some fantasy violence and risque humor) works better as a book than as a film. The film version is entertaining and fun but not quite magical. Plus there is a hilarious and well staged fight between Tristran and an animated corpse.

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Companion viewing: The Princess Bride , The Lord of the Rings , MirrorMask

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