Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: We’re dusting off a Watch This tradition and looking back on unsung summer blockbusters—the big movies that opened to critical scorn or audience indifference during the warmer weeks, but are better than their reputations (or tepid box office) suggest.
Look, there’s never going to be another The Princess Bride. That film’s lightning-in-a-bottle combination of whimsy, postmodern comedy, and buckets of charm generated by its immensely likable cast can only be imitated, never replicated. But with its kid-friendly “long ago and far away” world-building and sophisticated storytelling, Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust comes closer than most films this century to matching the appeal of Rob Reiner’s classic. It’s based, like Princess Bride, on a book—Neil Gaiman’s 1998 novel of the same name, itself an expansion of his earlier comic-book miniseries. And like the Reiner film, it benefits from narration, Ian McKellen’s grandfatherly oration subbing in for the ramshackle draw of Peter Falk’s ambling voice-over storytelling. But most of all, the two movies share a commitment to old-fashioned notions of love and empathy while never once feeling trite or hoary.
Stardust is all about Tristan (Daredevil’s Charlie Cox), a romantic dreamer living in the small rural idyll of Wall, so named because it’s surrounded by a wall that acts as the barrier to a magical fantasy kingdom known as Stormhold. After impulsively promising his boorish crush that he’ll bring her back the fallen star they both watched land over the wall, he crosses the barrier and ventures out to discover that it’s no hunk of rock but rather a woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes), quite put out at being captured and carted along as a gift for the object of Tristan’s affections. Unfortunately for both, there’s an evil witch (Michelle Pfeiffer, nailing the “joyfully malevolent” thing) who wants to cut out Yvaine’s heart and consume it to achieve eternal youth. Add to that a ruthless prince (Mark Strong) who needs the jewel around Yvaine’s neck to become king, and Tristan and Yvaine soon find themselves fleeing multiple threats, running afoul of the captain of a flying pirate ship (Robert De Niro) and squabbling as they slowly—and perhaps inevitably, this being a fairy tale—fall in love.
Stardust wastes no time jumping into its story, covering years in the opening minutes (again, shades of Princess Bride) to get to the good stuff. But once the film slows down and focuses on the journey of Tristan and Yvaine, it settles into a winning groove, nimbly balancing its parade of supporting characters and still finding time to make the feelings that develop between the leads feel plausible. (The 128-minute runtime might help a little there.) Danes manages to find the soul in a character that is pretty hollow as written, and both Pfeiffer and Strong imbue their antagonists with real menace, even as they keep the tone light. Even Ricky Gervais, popping up for a cameo as a black-market trader in magics, contributes to the film’s sense of gentle wonder.
That Vaughn is the director behind this playful fantasy is surprising. There’s nothing in his otherwise dark and oft-nihilistic filmography (Kick-Ass, the Kingsman franchise) to suggest he was capable of such good-natured material. (Also, as his own actors will attest, his real-life persona seems very much akin to that of a James Bond supervillain.) But in reworking Gaiman’s adult-targeted fantasy for a more youthful audience, Stardust succeeds by leaning into elements —warmth, hope, humanism—Vaughn so often banishes from his other movies. We’ve already got a Princess Bride, but there’s always room for another film that so adeptly blends wit, adventure, and imagination.