A 2007 fairy tale fantasy movie in the realm of Princess Bride, the film seemed to receive little fanfare upon release and quickly disappeared from theaters amidst the glut of the usual blockbusters. Upon catching up with the movie, I was surprised by how good it actually was. And, I have to say, I should not have been too surprised considering the source material by Neil Gaiman and the director behind the camera, Matthew Vaughn (whose only previous directing credit was the superb Layer Cake).
Set in the small English village Wall in the 1800s, the town borders the magical realm of Stormhold separated from the rest of the real world by a wall with just a small gap providing a bridge between the two worlds. The film follows young Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) as he sets out on a journey to retrieve a fallen star on the other side of the wall as an engagement present for his one true love, Victoria (Sienna Miller). What he didn’t expect was that this fallen star would be in the form of a young woman who calls herself Yvaine (Claire Danes) and that they would be chased by three evil witches (Played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Alexander, and Joanna Scanlan) looking to carve out Yvaine’s heart for immortal youth. Also on their trail, are two princes (played by Mark Strong and Jason Flemyng) on a quest for a ruby sent out by their dying father (Peter O’Toole) in order to determine who will become the next King of Stormhold, which Yvaine happens to be in possession of.
As you can see, there’s a lot going on and that’s a lot of the fun of it. It’s part whimsical fairy tale, part chase movie never becoming boring. And there’s a great deal of humor judicially sprinkled throughout the movie’s running time. A lot of that comes from subverting expectations of the usual fairy tale mode and twisting conventions. A perfect moment that early on encapsulates this subversive attitude is the scene in which we are introduced to the princes of Stormhold and their delightfully wicked father, the King played with a wonderful, almost sadistic glee by Peter O’Toole. When introduced, Rupert Everett arrives late to the meeting with his three other brothers and from the outset is set up to be the evil, scheming brother who could be the villain of the piece. Immediately upon his entrance, the King tricks him to the balcony and is pushed off by one of his brothers. A wonderfully cruel set up to a running gag of continually offing brothers until there is only one to remain as King.
Amidst this wonderful world building, this setting up of expectations and turning things around is constantly utilized. From the star being a beautiful girl to our hero’s affections turning away from the woman he was on the quest for in the first place, the film retains unpredictability in an otherwise staid, well-worn genre and really makes it fun again.
This extends to its wonderful supporting characters as well turning it fun performances. Michelle Pfeiffer as one of the three evil witches after eternal youth is wonderfully evil and wicked. She shows up rarely nowadays but any time she shows up, it’s a delight. And she’s still sexy as all hell and never overplays her role into cliche. She imbues the character with rich depth and just has fun with it.
That goes up and down with the movie. Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman never settle for one dimensional characters and always give even the smallest bit characters that little extra to make the world that they are building that much more believable. The whole film plays as Princess Bride with a real budget and effects work put into it but with the same amount of attention paid to character, story, and humor as well.
That’s not to say that the film is without its flaws. There are some wonky bits of effects work here and there that pull you out of the movie. And as much as the world feels built up and lived in, there’s never any effort to give the world of Stormhold a unifying whole. Elements are introduced and never developed beyond that. Robert DeNiro shows up as an air pirate catching lightning in the sky. As our main character is new to this entire world, all of these things should be met with some type of awe and wonderment, but none of that ever happens.
In that same thought, it’s never clear what that separation between our two worlds is really like. At the end during the celebration scene (because all fantasy movies must end with big celebrations apparently), there are characters in Stormhold from the real world. There are aspects well built, especially when it comes to the magic and faerie side of the film, and there are others where I’m left scratching my head. The actual kingdom of Stormhold doesn’t seem to have any central rule so the entire subplot of the heir to the throne rings hollow and is only good for a couple of good laughs every so often.
Which is what that subplot is often relegated to. Vaughn uses the ever increasing amount of dead princes as a kind of Greek chorus to the movie, as they are all relegated to ghosts looking upon the main actions of the movie, making somewhat amusing side jokes. However, this more often than not fall flat and they feel as if they take away from certain points of the movie.
Which, of course, goes into another problem for the movie which is the muddled pacing. The film starts and goes in fits and spurts and then ramps up with no building up whatsoever. There are countless shots of each segment of characters walking amongst gorgeous vistas but it all feels like it could’ve been cut down to about half for the same feel.
The part which only half works are the DeNiro pirate scenes which feel more like filler in an already full movie. As entertaining as it is watching DeNiro play far against type in a fairly wacked out role, this segment of the film drags when the movie’s at a point where things really need to kick into high gear. Although this portion of the movie features a funny Ricky Gervais scene and DeNiro prancing around in a dress (needs to be seen to be believed), it could’ve done with some judicious editing.
These aren’t really great knocks on the film. Even in it’s dragged out moments, there are still bits of great fun and really stand out scenes. The movie never feels lackluster and has a great sweeping, epic scope of some of the great far out fairy tales. It even has Ian McKellan as a narrator, completing the reverent tone of fantastical fairy tales and wonderful fantasy. The film unfolds as any great bedtime story does with some fun action and dueling and a sweet, central romance that doesn’t feel hokey. It takes these central fantasy elements and makes them feel fresh again. It’s a well written, fantastically directed piece of fun fantasy filmmaking that should’ve found a much bigger audience than it did.