Friday, June 29, 2007

STARDUST Isn't Golden

Like a lot of people my age (OK, like a lot of guys my age), I grew up with fantasy films. With the arrival of STAR WARS, fantasy films changed drastically (no, really, hear me out on this!), going from the likes of Ray Harryhausen's JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and SINBAD adventures to the STAR WARS and MATRIX films. The advances in special effects made fantasy films more attractive to audiences and it certainly didn't hurt that the folks behind those films also knew how to tell a story and make an excellent picture. Many of those late 70s/early 80s films remain classics because of that and pretty much all of them hold up (and come across as even better) today. But in the years since we've had an overload of fantasy films and they keep getting less and less impressive. I was never a big LORD OF THE RINGS fan (liked the second film, though) and the likes of HARRY POTTER and most of the comic book adaptations simply leave me cold. I've said it before and I'll say it again, there's nothing wrong with a cliche as long as it's done right, but the fantasy film formula has really run its course over the last decade or so. A lonely, seemingly insignificant boy/manchild/Hobbit who is actually "The Chosen One" or some such crap, a person whose destiny is meant to do great things and to save a civilization/defeat an evil ruler/kill a monster/take their rightful place at the throne, ect. is now a big old cliche. You could argue that this type of story has been around for centuries, from the Greek Myths to The Bible to THE WIZARD OF OZ, and that every fantasy story is simply following their model, which is fine, but please, for goodness sake, do something new with it. I'm sick of happy endings where the evil ruler has been defeated, peace is restored throughout the land and true love is found, not merely because this isn't always the case (you do know Bush is still President, right?), but because it's always a happy ending. Call me crazy, but a little tragedy in my fantasy these days might be a bit like chocolate in my peanut butter; two great tastes that taste great together.

I bring all this up because I saw Matthew Vaughn's STARDUST the other night at Half-Assed-A-Thon and didn't really care much for it. For a while there I was hating it, but at a certain point the film makes a slight detour from the norm and, for me at least, the film picks up a bit. (I won't go into specifics, but it pertains to Robert DeNiro's character and it's a love-it-or-hate-it move that I thought worked.) STARDUST is one of those movies that (to me) cherry picks from a bunch of other movies and tries to call it something new, but isn't. I could feel a real TIME BANDITS and Gilliam influence throughout (and I give the film credit for trying to be funny and irreverent, which I suppose comes from Neil Gaiman's original graphic novel), but a master fantasist like Gilliam wouldn't have made a movie so damn overblown. I found there to be some clever moments and bits (they got some good mileage out of a goat turned into a human), though never once was I enchanted or moved, even though this is supposed to be a love story. This is not a film of surprises or any real originality, just another overdone fantasy epic. The sets aren't just big, they HUGE; the costumes aren't just detailed, they're extravagant; the FX not merely special, they're extra-special. Why show an inn being created from the outside when you can show every inch of it grow organically from within? Remember on BEWITCHED when Samantha would simply twitch her nose and something would appear in a jump cut? Didn't that get the job done just as well as a big CGI shot? Throughout my viewing of STARDUST I had a mantra going through my head again and again: Just because you can do amazing things with CGI, doesn't mean you should.

But what was really the worst aspect of the film was how all this bigness seemed to be to be in complete contrast to what a real fantasy film should be. In looking back on all of the great movie fantasies (and I'm taking LORD OF THE RINGS out of this equation because I don't think it belongs), one element that most of these films had about them was a sense of modesty. The fantasy elements, though usually the things in the film that stood out, were also scaled back, mostly delivered in small doses. Not every scene in THE WIZARD OF OZ has some incredible, fantastic, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful thing happening, so it focuses more on the story. E.T.'s bigger set pieces appear only at the beginning, middle and end of the film and in-between is all characters. They say that it's better to leave things to the imagination because your mind can come up with even more fantastic things than any movie can, but because of the advances in CGI, fantasy films have all tried to do the imagining for you. Need a CGI charcater? We can do that. Need to build virtual sets on Mars? We can do that, too. The limitations in FX work that moviemakers of old used to have let them put better emphasis on the story and characters and when it came time for those big "money" scenes, they got creative. Harryhausen's FX scenes in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS are so memorable partly because he knew he had only so much time and money to do them, so they had to be done right. With PAN'S LABYRINTH, Del Toro was working on a limited budget, so he made everything count; if he had more money he probably could have done more FX work and it probably would not have been as good a film. There was a film that truly understood the depths of fantasy, how important it was to use restraint so as not to overwhelm the story. But 20 years from now, we'll still be talking about PAN'S LABYRINTH and not STARDUST. It's all in the approach you take and not in trying out some new digital toy on big name movie stars. You're movie can be filled with fallen stars, sky pirates, wicked witches, enchanted kingdoms and non-stop spectacle, but if that's all it is then it really isn't much. Bigger doesn't mean better and STARDUST is just too damn big for its own good.

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