“A philosopher once asked, ‘Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at the stars because we are human?’ Pointless, really. Do the stars gaze back? Now that’s a question.”
I like fairy tales. I always have, and I’m not ashamed of it. I try to make a point of seeing all the new Disney movies in theatres, and I’ve done that ever since I first saw Pocahontas, and wow, does that ever make me feel old (even though I’m really not). I have a leather-bound book of fairy tales by my bed, I watch Once Upon A Time even though it’s not even that fantastic a show anymore, and I once appeared as the Wardrobe in my high school’s production of Beauty and the Beast. I like fairy tales, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
A lot of people who’ve seen Stardust will tell you that it’s not a fairy tale, that it’s an adventure story with some romance and magic mixed in. But I’ve got to tell you: that’s exactly what a fairy tale is, or at least what a fairy tale ought to be. Tangled, though it featured a gorgeous male sidekick, was primarily about Rapunzel discovering her true identity and realizing her rightful place in the world. Yes, the magic somewhat enabled that—namely by making sure Flynn didn’t stay dead—but the story wasn’t wholly dependent on magic. And the romance was just gravy. So basically it was an adventure with a little magic thrown in, which is exactly how the anonymous people would describe Stardust. But guess what? Rapunzel is a fairy tale. And Stardust has more than just a little magic, and judging by the fact that Yvaine was in a freakin’ towel when she and Tristan were making out (spoilers), there’s a lot of romance. (They did the do. That is what I’m getting at.) So this is a fairy tale whether you like it or not.
The story opens with Ian McKellen narrating a rather pointless bit about the Royal Academy and a letter they got from a certain boy in a certain , which really doesn’t make sense to me, even after a dozen viewings. At any rate, a town called Wall is bordered by a wall (shocking), which separates the rest of the world from a magical kingdom known as Stormhold, and for some reason an old man who’s been guarding the gate for like sixty years is considered a viable deterrent against people getting in and out (a poor defence in the event of hypothetical invading armies). Unsurprisingly, Prince Caspian (he’s called Dunstan Thorn in this movie) gets through into Stormhold and meets Una, who claims to be a princess held in captivity by a witch. Of course Dunstan immediately impregnates her, because hormones. Nine months later the baby appears at the wall and is delivered to Dunstan, who raises the baby and nobody questions where it came from, because 19th-century England was so tolerant about babies born out of wedlock. And that’s the point when I stop being skeptical and actually start to like the movie.
Because that’s the point when several storylines begin to merge together. Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), bastard from the wall (when did we stumble into Game of Thrones territory?), shows up to win the heart of the fair Victoria, who’s —kind of a raging b*tch, actually. After an embarrassing encounter with the equally-fair Humphrey (Henry Cavill, a.k.a. the upcoming Man of Steel), getting fired from his job, and somehow managing to get a date with Victoria (Sienna Miller) despite her impending engagement to Tall, Blonde, and Mustache, Tristan tries to get through the wall in pursuit of a fallen star. Of course, now is when the 97-year-old guard develops kung-fu skills and beats the sh*t out of Tristan, sending him home in disgrace. Dunstan then gives Tristan a Babylon Candle, which Una left with him when she abandoned him at the wall, along with a letter telling him to light it and think of her. Tristan sets it on fire and promptly disappears, landing on top of a pretty lady in a silver dress, and he thinks it’s his mother. Turns out it’s the fallen star, and she’s kind of in a pissy mood. And so an adventure ensues in which Tristan tries to bring the star, Yvaine (Claire Danes), home to Victoria as a demonstration of his love.
But this is complicated by the issue of succession, as the king of Stormhold has just died, leaving three of his seven sons behind to fight over a magical flying necklace that makes the holder king, as long as it’s a male of royal blood. “Did you say ‘flying’?” you ask. Yes, I did. That’s why Yvaine fell out of the sky in the first place, because necklaces are capable of interplanetary travel now (seriously, why wasn’t the Royal Academy studying that? We’d have had FTL travel by the forties if they did) and it crashed into her, causing her to fall to Earth, so of course she decides to wear it around her neck. So the whole “princes competing with each other” thread is punctuated by attempts (and successes) on each others’ lives, which would be incredibly morbid if the newly dead princes didn’t immediately join their really-quite-dead brethren and follow the still-living brothers around, making wisecracks and providing commentary on current events.
Then there are the Wicked Witches of the Giant Hole in the Ground, who are simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. See, eating the glowing heart of a star will keep someone young forever, as long as they do it often enough (since the effects seem to wear off when the user does magic). And since stars don’t fall from the sky very often—and if they do, they land in the human world and become a hunk of molten rock—it’s kind of a big deal, particularly as the witches are about four hundred years old and look like they’ve spent that entire time soaking in a bathtub. So they use the tiny chunk of star-heart they’ve got left from the last one who fell, and the head witch, Lamia, turns into Michelle Pfeiffer and wreaks havoc all over the countryside in an attempt to track down Yvaine and cut out her heart.
Long story short, there are two different groups of awful people who want Yvaine, and when Lamia finally corners her and Tristan, these crazy kids use what’s left of the Babylon Candle to teleport themselves up into the clouds. They get scooped up by lightning pirates (it’s even cooler than it sounds) and run into the fearsome Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), who’s got a towering reputation and a closet full of frilly dresses. No, seriously. He’s also quite charming and gives Tristan a desperately needed makeover, which makes him into a sexy swashbuckler (and somehow he gets hair extensions). By the time the ship lands in port sixty miles from Wall, Yvaine is obviously smitten with Tristan, but it seems Tristan’s still got his heart set on the awful Victoria.
Remember how I mentioned a witch at the beginning? Hint: she’s the one who’s been keeping Una captive all this time. The witch can’t see Yvaine (long story), so she turns Tristan into a squirrel and takes him (and the invisible Yvaine) to Wall. And while they’re in the witch’s caravan, Yvaine says one of the most perfect monologues I’ve ever heard in my life:
You know when I said I knew little about love? That wasn’t true. I know a lot about love. I’ve seen it, seen centuries and centuries of it, and it was the only thing that made watching your world bearable. All those wars, pain, lies, hate… made me want to turn away and never look down again. But to see the way that mankind loves… I mean, you could search to the furthest reaches of the universe and never find anything more beautiful. So, yes, I know that love is unconditional. But I also know it can be unpredictable, unexpected, uncontrollable, unbearable, and strangely easy to mistake for loathing, and… what I’m trying to say, Tristan, is… I think I love you. My heart… it feels like my chest can barely contain it. Like it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to you. And if you wanted it, I’d wish for nothing in exchange—no gifts, no goods, no demonstrations of devotion. Nothing but knowing you love me, too. Just your heart, in exchange for mine.
Excuse me. My face seems to be leaking. Ahem. So after this glorious confession of ardour, which Tristan doesn’t seem to understand, being a squirrel and all, he and Yvaine check into a room at the inn. He then reveals that he heard her after all and that he loves her, too, and then they kiss and totally do the do (Ghost Brother #3 is watching. Kinda creepy).
What follows is about twenty minutes of the greatest tension build-up and climax that I’ve ever seen. Tristan leaves in the morning to tell Victoria that he’s done with her and that he’s staying with Yvaine, but he leaves a message with the innkeeper, who of course garbles it and tells Yvaine that Tristan is returning to Victoria to be with her. (It’s basically Romeo and Juliet, but way more successfully than when Twilight tried to do it.) Yvaine tries to go to Wall, not knowing that she will turn into stone the moment she crosses the wall. Lamia is following, whose magic use has caused her to look like Michelle Pfeiffer in about a thousand years. So is Prince Septimus, the only prince still standing, and Una, who has brought her witch mistress with her as she is unable to leave her side. And Tristan has just realized what awaits Yvaine, so he’s running, too. Everyone is converging on the wall, and Lamia gets there first.
She takes Una and Yvaine back to the giant hole in the ground, where there’s a super creepy building filled with animals (for divination) and mirrors (for breaking). Septimus and Tristan team up to kill the witches, Tristan is reunited with his mother (who, quite frankly, picks the worst-ever moment to say, “I’m your mother,” and give him a hug—seriously, lady, get your sh*t together, ‘cause your son’s girlfriend is strapped to a table and she’s about to have her heart cut out), and two of the witches bite the dust faster than you can say, “I thought this was a family movie.” And then Septimus dies, and the seven ghostly brothers commiserate on how truly screwed they now are, since there’s no one left to be King of Stormhold.
Tristan battles Septimus’ reanimated body and, finally, Lamia, who breaks down at the last moment and tells Tristan and Yvaine to leave, because life means nothing without her sisters. Overjoyed, they leave and live happily ever after.
Just kidding. Lamia slams the doors and tries to kill them, because she’s been taking lessons from Moriarty and she’s sooooo changeable! But Yvaine is so happy that Tristan came for her that she shines, which is “what stars do best,” and shines the crap out of Lamia, blowing her up into a pile of tiny little witch shreds. As they go to leave, Tristan picks up the magical flying necklace off the floor, where it was blasted during Yvaine’s special effects show—and the necklace changes colour, indicating that Tristan is the new king of Stormhold.
The ghosts disappear, Tristan and Yvaine marry and become king and queen, and Victoria attends the coronation with Humphrey (who is most likely gay for Shakespeare) and looks super grumpy about it. And the happy couple “ruled for eighty years. But no man can live forever—except he who possesses the heart of a star, and Yvaine had given hers to Tristan completely. When their children and grandchildren were grown, it was time to light the Babylon Candle… and they still live happily ever after.”
So that was the longest plot summary I’ve ever given, and it’s the bulk of my review. You may well wonder why I didn’t do my standard format, which is discussing character, motivation, music, how close it stuck to the book, etc. And that’s a reasonable point, because you came here for my opinions, not for a plot summary. But I needed you to know why I love this movie so much and why I always have: because it’s a beautiful story, a mixture of humour, romance, and a touch of something dark, creating a story the likes of which I’ve never seen before. It’s contemporary but absolutely classic, and it’s a story I know will endure. The characters don’t matter (although they’re spot-on), because in a fairy tale, nobody cares about what sort of motivation the villain had or why the princess had to sleep for a hundred years. All that matters is the adventure, the magic, the story itself.
Yes, there were parts that fell flat. Yes, Una got on my nerves. Yes, there were some logistical issues (why did they have a single 97-year-old man guarding the wall? [I really cannot emphasize his age enough.] How is the colour of someone’s hair or their memories before they were three years old considered legal tender in a financial transaction? Did Lamia have a valid reason for letting Tristan and Yvaine go, aside from creating false hope in the audience and thus orchestrating an even grander climax?). But despite those moments, this is a story with heart, and it’s a story with a few great messages that everyone needs to know.
One: love is not measured by what you can do for someone. It’s measured by one’s willingness to give one’s heart wholly, completely, and unreservedly.
Two: not being popular is a good thing. Why try to fit in with people you don’t want to be anything like?
Three: there are shop boys, and there are boys who just happen to work in shops for the time being. What you do doesn’t have to define you.
Four: don’t take life too seriously. Bad things will happen and there’s no getting around that, but if you can find the humour in it, the bad things won’t be able to hurt you.
And finally: when the darkness closes in around you, do what you do best: shine.
Final Grade: A
- Shakespeare: “Tell me news of my beloved England; I want to know absolutely everything.”
- The first mate KNOWS. And the crew is so supportive! “It’s all right, captain. We always knew you were a whoopsie.”
- I love that the film is so different from the book. I was actually disappointed by the book, as I felt that Lamia allowing them to go just didn’t fit. So I was glad they turned that on its head in the film, using it to spark the real climax.
- Tristan: (practicing in the mirror) “Father, I lost my job… Father, I lost my job; I’m sorry… Father—” Dunstan: (behind him) “You lost your job.”
- Ricky Gervais as a Badger-esque character.
- For all that Babylon Candles are supposed to be so rare, Una sure does seem to have a ton of them kicking around. That is all.