In the fantasy-adventure Stardust, an airborne pirate barge soars through the sky fishing for violent surges of electricity. Nets cast wide through the storm clouds, the crew makes it look like catching lightning is easy—certainly easier than capturing the elusive magic of a fairy tale.
Like many tellers of would-be-timeless tales, the creators of Stardust—writer Neil Gaiman in its original graphic novel form and screenwriter and British television personality Jane Goodman for the adaptation—understand the tropes. Like everyone from Sir Thomas Malory to George Lucas and J.K. Rowling, they revisit archetypal hero mythology with a zeal that would have Joseph Campbell giggling in his grave. But if it were as simple as following a recipe—a pinch of unknown parentage, a dash of wise mentor, stir well—there wouldn’t be so many limp examples of the genre. And Stardust can’t quite shake the sense that it was built with more calculation than inspiration.
You’ll certainly find plenty of the basic story setup familiar. In a prologue narrated by Ian McKellan in his most resonant Gandalf-ian tones, we learn of a magical world called Stormhold that exists in the middle of England, separated from our reality only by a stone wall. One young man managed to sneak through for a small adventure 150 years ago, only to have the infant result of that small adventure dropped on his doorstep nine months later. Flash forward 18 years, and Tristan (Charlie Cox)—that baby all grown up—is a restless lad pining for a seemingly inaccessible girl (Sienna Miller). Only after his father tells him that his mother is from the other side of the wall does Tristan begin a quest to bring his love a fallen star—even if that star takes the human form of a woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes).
Since the pursuit of Stardom is always complicated, Tristan isn’t the only one looking for Yvaine. The ancient witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs the heart of a star to remain alive and youthful; the heirs of Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O’Toole) vie for the jewel, which will determine the next ruler. It’s like every “once upon a time” in history distilled into two hours.
Tristan’s ur-search for his family history and accompanying romantic rendezvous are familiar enough stuff, but director Matthew Vaughn’s choices make everything feel even more like a mash-up of other movies, stories and even amusement-park rides. The royal heirs who have met untimely deaths at their siblings’ hands appear as a ghostly chorus, shimmering like they should be sitting next to you at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. Lamia and her sisters cackle and plot like Macbeth’s sorceresses by way of Hocus Pocus, and the bombastic Ilan Eshkeri score sounds as though someone took Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean themes and cranked them up at a house party. Even some of the attempts at droll metahumor feel like leftover scraps from The Princess Bride. All of it is recognizable, and nearly all of it feels flat.
Not as flat, perhaps, as the two lead performances. Charlie Cox can pull off the vaguely befuddled expression of a callow lad plunged into a defining moment but, like Orlando Bloom before him, he’s all functional prettiness packing only a smidgen of genuine charisma. And that goes double for Claire Danes, who can be either radiant or mournful but appears to be concentrating so hard on her accent—because, of course, stars also need to sound like they graduated from the Royal Shakespeare Company—that she can’t create an actual character. They’re the center of Stardust, and I dare you to care about anything they’re going through.
Everything that salvages Stardust from utter tedium, in fact, sneaks in around the edges: Robert DeNiro as the mincing dandy of a pirate captain; Mark Williams (Harry Potter’s Arthur Weasley) as a billy goat turned into a human; Ricky Gervais as a motor-mouthed black marketer; a duel between Tristan and a corpse animated marionette-style by Lamia. Even the blue blood that seeps from the cut throat of a prince is a nice touch. But, when it comes to the fundamentals of the narrative, Stardust feels like a perfunctory stab at transcendent, magical storytelling. Like Frankenstein’s monster, it’s something sewn together from spare parts—but without that spark of lightning that would bring it to life.