Not just an illustrated novel by Neil Gaiman
, also a 2007 movie.
Runtime: 127 minutes
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Quite a good movie too. IMDB rates it at 8.0/10, while Rotten Tomatoes gives it 76 percent fresh.
I missed this at the cinema, but caught it on DVD over the weekend.
It's a grown-up fairy tale, with witches, pirates, ghosts and all kinds of other things that seem nowadays to define the fantasy genre. I have not read Gaiman's book, but the web seems to think it is a faithful interpretation.
Wuukiee says: "It is not a 100 percent transcription of the book—it cuts some pieces and makes other larger—but it is a wonderful movie and does an excellent job of capturing the spirit and mood of the book."
Despite being quite a good movie, it won the Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for most overlooked movie of 2007.
It's funny, if you like that kind of thing. In this context, That kind of thing means The Princess Bride. It pokes fun at itself, and breaks stereotypes, but manages at the same time to maintain a proper fairy tale story. I found it funnier, more moving and more entertaining than the Princess Bride.
The proper fairy tale story has a beautiful but innocent female lead falling to earth. It has a hero in the form of a humble, but honest-and-true shop-boy. It has four witches who want to cut out the girl's heart, and it has multiple princes who want to take the jewel she bears from around her neck, as proof that they are the next king of the magical world.
Even if it's a long time since you read any fairy stories, it's not difficult to guess how it all turns out.
No prizes if you guessed that the witches manage to cut out the girl's heart, while the shop boy goes back to the worthless bimbo who ordered him to find the fallen star and the ruthless prince becomes the new king.
So I'm not going to worry about about spoilers, you can all predict the plotline.
The story is in the telling. And in the gags. And in the acting.
First, the acting. It's good. Not that you would expect any different with the stellar cast. Somehow this one slipped through the mass media interest, but Robert de Niro, Sienna Miller, Michelle Pfeiffer, Claire Danes, Peter O'Toole, and Ian McKellen have big parts in it. There are bit-parts from David Walliams, Ricky Gervais, and a string of other big names in comedy and in acting.
The story started life as an illustrated novel by Neil Gaiman, while the director was Matthew Vaughn who also did Layer cake, and was producer and actor in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. With that team behind it, someone would have to make a lot of mistakes before it went bad. It did not go bad.
I guess, like most other reviewers I have to start with Pfeiffer. She plays the witch-queen Lamia (Lilim in the book). In this mythology, anyone who possesses the heart of a fallen star becomes immortal. The last star fell to earth a long time ago. Centuries ago, Lamia and her two sisters found that star (who arrives on earth as an innocent young woman) and cut out her heart. The heart is in the form of a jewel, which restores their magical power and brings youth and energy. But that old star is now growing weak.
Pfeiffer starts the movie as an old crone, but upon learning that a new star has fallen, she eats the last of the old star, and is immediately transformed into a beautiful (if naked) young woman, and flirts outrageously with the camera in her new-found beauty.
As Lamia performs magic, she consumes more of the magical power, and consequently ages in discrete stages. Many of us baby-boomers — especially women — who might see this movie are ourselves ageing steadily. To us, Lamia's step-wise ageing offers a constant source of black humour.
Look out for the moment she tries to give herself a magical facelift. A tiny, brief moment, but wickedly funny in an all-too-true sort of way.
Lamia, then is on a quest to recover the fallen star. She has a knife and is prepared to use it to cut out the girl's heart. Lamia is, of course, the chief baddie in this magical caper through fairy-land. She does it well. She cackles and casts spells and transmutes people into animals and vice versa.
If I have to criticise her, it is to say she lacks the edge of menace that some other actresses have brought to the role of chief female baddie. My guess is that this was a deliberate decision by the director, in order to get the family-friendly PG-rating.
Pfeiffer's previous role was as the wicked Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray – the musical version, and she seemed to enjoy romping around, being more evil than Debbie Harry who took that role in the original Hairspray movie. I guess it must be hard, for such a beautiful woman, to get the credits for acting skills. Certainly in this movie, Pfeiffer did not have to rely on her looks to get the plaudits. She even seems to enjoy the steady stream of jokes at the expense of her own fading movie-beauty.
Robert de Niro plays the pirate Captain Shakespeare. Again, he's rather fun, and there are plenty of jokes directed at fairy tale stereotypes. De Niro plays the unconventional captain with enthusiasm, moving from harsh and violent in front of his blood-thirsty pirate crew to tender and romantic in the privacy of his cabin. As one of the best actors alive today, he makes all the transitions look easy, and has no problem convincing us of his mixture of fear, embarrassment and concern when his crew discovers his guilty secret. De Niro, alone among the cast retains his American accent.
Sienna Miller plays the bimbo called Victoria. She too was in Layer Cake, and maybe that is why she was picked for this, because, frankly, vapid Victoria's role could have been played by almost any pretty girl.
Charlie Cox is a relative newcomer who plays the heroic shop-boy-on-a-magical-quest. He does it rather well. There are few stereotype-breaking jokes in his role, but he plays it with enthusiasm. Initially, his character Tristan is infatuated with the vacuous Victoria. They both live in the real earth-world along with Victoria's beau, a chap who likes to use a swordstick, and Tristan's dad, Dunstan and a few other people.
In his youth, Dunstan managed to cross a wall into the magical world beyond and find a slave girl who seduces him. Nine months later, baby Tristan is delivered to Dunstan's earth-home. The movie-proper opens with Dunstan telling the grown-up Tristan about the magical world beyond the wall and giving him a magic candle which becomes a kind of teleport device.
Tristan is still thinking of his promise to Victoria to bring back a piece of the star they saw fall to earth. Instead of teleporting to his mother, as intended, he teleports into a large crater and meets the star, Yvaine. From there, their adventure continues....
Clare Danes plays the star, Yvaine. Unlike the rest of the cast, she does the English accent rather badly. There's no real need for the cast to be English, but the director seems to think it has to be that way. Probably to retain the Olde-Worlde fairy-tale atmosphere. In any case, I think Danes must have taken lessons from the same elocution teacher who did for Helen Baxendale when she played Ross's girlfriend, Emily Waltham, in Friends. Apparently Danes has been voted one of the best-looking actresses of all time. Beauty, I guess is in the eye of the beholder.
Beauty and bad accents aside, Danes pulls off the star thing. She manages to break a few stereotypes as the female lead in a fairy tale, being a bit grumpy, and then having enough spunk to escape from Tristan and ride off on her own, with the help of a convenient unicorn. But in the end she swoons and falls for her hero. At the end she conquers Lamia by being a star.
There are plenty. It has to be said, however, that director Matthew Vaughn allows some obvious plot holes to appear in order to set up some good jokes. Personally, I don't think the movie suffers for that, but others might disagree. At one point, Lamia wants to set a trap for Yvaine, so she conjures up a wayside inn, and awaits Yvaine's arrival. Yvaine duly arrives mounted on a unicorn, and proceeds to enter the trap.
The problem here is that the unicorn should have sensed the trap and the subterfuge, but it made no effort to prevent Yvaine from entering the inn. A few moments later, however, the unicorn prevents Tristan from drinking poisoned wine.
It's a small point, and does not, in my opinion, detract from the story. It also allows a series of jokes. One is when a chap is magically transformed into a serving wench and grows breasts in a rather fun piece of CGI. That transformation is milked a couple of times for more gentle humour.
Another running gag is the presence of ghosts. The old king had many sons, but he is a scheming type, and has taught his sons to act the same way and stab each other in the back (literally, in one case) to win the throne. When each of them dies, he joins the others as a ghost, bearing the scars of his untimely death. The ghosts form a comedic backdrop to many of the scenes.
Towards the end, for example, Lamia uses a voodoo doll to re-animate the corpse of one of the dead princes, swishing the sword arm in an effort to kill Tristan. The ghostly owner of the body looks at his brothers and shrugs as if to say he no longer has any control over his actions.
When Ricky Gervais comes on screen, he plays one of his familiar characters, with a motor mouth and a quick wit. His role is as a trader in contraband and stolen goods, but he ends up a victim of the witch's magic and the prince's sword.
It's a fairy tale. King Tristan and Queen Yvaine reigned well and long and the kingdom became happier and more prosperous than ever under their rule. They all lived happily ever after. What did you expect?
The only special feature is a writer's commentary (by Vaughn and Jane Goldman
). The runtime is listed as 122 minutes and as 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen.
I'll give it 8.5/10, with points taken off for small continuity errors and some of the accents. There's also a time mismatch between the experiences of Yvaine and Tristan on the pirate boat, and that of the rest of the story. Victoria gave Tristan just a week to get bring the star back to him, and he's already spent a couple of nights on the quest, so his time on the boat should be only a couple of days at most. Not really long enough to learn sword-fighting and become a lot more fanciable. But anyway....
I liked it a lot. It made me laugh. It made my kids laugh. I might even have shed a tear or two at the end. I'll watch it again as soon as I can.
Cast listing (partial) (courtesy IMDB)
Ian McKellen Narrator (voice)
David Kelly Guard
Ben Barnes Young Dunstan
Kate Magowan Slave Girl / Una
Melanie Hill Ditchwater Sal
Charlie Cox Tristan
Sienna Miller Victoria
Nathaniel Parker Dunstan
Peter O'Toole King
Mark Strong Septimus
Jason Flemyng Primus
Mark Heap Tertius
Rupert Everett Secundus
David Walliams Sextus
Julian Rhind-Tutt Quartus
Adam Buxton Quintus
Michelle Pfeiffer Lamia
Claire Danes Yvaine
Robert De Niro Captain Shakespeare
Ricky Gervais Ferdy the Fence