After first watching this, Sam K described it to me as “The Princess Bride for kids today”. This was a comparison that seemed very apt to me. I can well remember the sense of wonder and excitement I had when first watching TPB, and I think it is very easily imagined as the response of a “kid” today.
Both are essentially fairy stories – a brave hero comes and rescues a princess from a difficult situation. Both rest heavily on the crutch of love: what is love, how is it proved, how is it won, and so on. I think both are also great adventure stories.
While the relationship of a first-time viewer might be similar for the two movies, a recent re-watching of Stardust left me cold in much the way that repeated viewings of The Princess Bride has left me with a renewed interest. My virtual reversal of opinion of Stardust prompted me to look a bit deeper, and so, with specific reference to another beloved movies, this is what I now think.
The most obvious point of difference between the two narratives is the relative abundance of actual tangible and effective magic. Lamia uses magic almost every scene in which she appears, particularly transmogrification. Ditchwater Sal, the other obvious magic-user is no less profligate. The obvious question is: why? I think the answer is fairly obvious: the magic alternately impresses upon us that Lamia and her sisters are powerful, in comparison to our inept hero, and sets up the reason that he can face Lamia without fear. Let’s face it: there’s no reason for Ditchwater Sal to transform IneptoBoy into a mouse, but there is a need to explain the power of the white flower and to give Yvaine a chance to “speak freely” – the characters here are sucked into the plot mechanics and spat out just as surely as a Scottish Factory worker wearing a kilt.
My problem with this was basically that the final fight, the natural climax of the witches’ downfall feels unimpressive compared to the creation of the inn. The level of power on display in the earlier conflicts between the characters is on a par, or greater, and so I was finally left unsatisfied that the witches really gave it their all, and forced young Tristan to really give his best effort to defeat them.
In comparison, the only real magic in The Princess Bride is Miracle Max’s resurrection pill. And let’s face it: that is not a particularly impressive bit of magic. While it does work, and bring Westley back to life, it leaves him too weak to physically participate in the rescue for which he was brought back. The use of the pill as a plot device is subtle, and indirect: by removing Westley’s physicality, it allows him to demonstrate Humperdink’s fatal flaw: cowardice. But this is, in plot terms, a fairly round-about point to make. If instead, the pill had worked perfectly well and Westley had simply slaughtered Humperdink in a duel, I doubt audiences would have complained particularly loudly. I think in real terms, that the use of magic is therefore aimed at deepening the narrative, rather than as structural formwork to create it: an important difference.
The portrayal of Septimus is similarly heavy-handed, and I don’t think it ultimately works any better. He is portrayed as a dangerous and murderous villain, supported by a similarly dangerous gang of followers. I think the scene with the Soothsayer on the south coast is just brilliant and Mark Strong nails menace and evil in that scene. But, alas, his band of supporters are cut down by a bunch of pirates. So when he reaches the final encounter, he is literally no better off than Tristan, and they enter the witches’ lair as equals. To me, this rendered the whole character surplus to requirements. In the end, Septimus adds a small plot detail (that Tristan is the last male heir) and some great colour scenes, but has no real impact on the flow of the story or the form of final outcome (the inevitable defeat of the witches and fulfilment of the love premise).
In comparison, The Princess Bride‘s two villains (Humperdink and Roogan) are foes very much in the same scale as the heroes. Humperdink is a great tracker, and clearly a master manipulator and politician: his plan is derailed by only the slimmest of chances. Who could foresee Westley’s existence, let alone is prodigious skill and determination? Both of these villains are defeated using essentially their own tools, and at the height of their powers. Humperdink is out-talked: the master manipulator and schemer out-played in a game of wits. Roogan is killed in hand-to-hand fighting, having very nearly defeated Inigo, who is well established at that point as being probably the second best swordsman alive.
And then we get right to the heart of the story: our protagonist. Tristan is shallow, incompetent and ultimately, bailed out of every tricky situation by someone else. The Babylon Candle gets him past the guard on the wall, and then saves him again in the Inn. Shakespeare is a false-reveal. Septimus provides a distraction saving him upon first entering the witches’ lair, and then ultimately it is Yvaine whose starlight power defeats Lamia.
Once you realize how inept Tristan is, it’s hard to overlook the incompetence of almost every other character in the movie. Primus, for example: what the hell was he thinking travelling the world looking for a gem without any assistance at all? And falling for the most rudimentary trap! Septimus is no better: being led a merry chase by a false soothsayer and then allowing all his men to be killed? Lamia is even worse! She continually makes sub-optimal decisions, right up until the end.
So on the gross mechanisms of “what’s going on in these movies”, I found Stardust distinctly lacking on a second viewing. But I can usually forgive a certain amount of nonsensicality. After all, I liked The Mummy Returns, which makes no sense. In the original Mummy, the whole point is to prevent him coming back, as that is an apocalyptic event, which is virtually the opening act of The Mummy Returns: combined with inconsistencies such as Evelyn switching from being Imhotep’s lost love, to her rival… I digress.
On re-watching it also becomes painfully apparent how one-dimensional all the characters are. Tristan is a love-sick puppy, basically. Lamia is vicious and evil. Septimus is scheming and evil. These characters are very rapidly established in their opening scenes and don’t grow or change at all. It takes more than a change of love allegiance and a hair-cut from Tristan to change as a character! Really, the only character with more than one side to them is Captain Shakespeare.
In comparison, none of the characters in the Princess Bride are quite so readily pigeon-holed. What, for example, are we to make of Westley? It’s well known that Westley is a dick – but at the same time, he’s made the best of a bad situation, and has come back to rescue Buttercup at what is plausibly amongst the earliest opportunities he’s had. Furthermore, while he talks up leaving Humperdink alive, it is perhaps a more compassionate option than most other heroes have shown in his place. I think that any bald statement you’d make about Westley being good or evil, brave or cowardly, cruel or compassionate, needs to be balanced against other actions observed in the movie: he’s not easily stereotyped at all. I like that in the movie, and I think you similarly can’t tie down the other characters. Inigo, for example, clearly has an honourable spirit, but it’s clear he’s not above murderous work, and while he’s studied and trained hard, he is also an alcoholic.
My conclusion is that Stardust is in many ways a triumph of style over substance. It’s very pretty and obvious fun, but once you notice a loose thread quickly unravels.