Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust turned 10 this week. Envisioned by the director as “Princess Bride with a Midnight Run’ overtone,” it remains one of his most visually and narratively distinctive films. Stardust happens to be one of Vaughn’s most definitive stylistic works. Hence, to commemorate the film’s anniversary, we explore the recurrence of zeal and whimsy in his filmography.
In the realm of gritty cinematic universes and pessimistic dystopian fiction, extravagant, bold and heartfelt fantasy has been mostly missing from mainstream cinema. Thankfully, a few directors have relished in creating luscious fantasy films (Guillermo Del Toro quickly comes to mind), and Vaughn is definitely included in the bunch.
Vaughn’s first taste of big-budget filmmaking came when he worked on an X-Men film for three years. The experience better prepared him for the bigger scale of Stardust compared to his earlier feature, Layer Cake. Stardust is an ambitious fantasy romp and Vaughn’s only family film to date. In an interview for Indie London in 2007, he declared that it was a project he sought out “because I loved it.”
I loved the story, I loved the book and I wanted to do something that I could share with my family, my kids and my wife and also do something different.
That explains the film’s lighter tone compared to the rest of Vaughn’s filmography. Stardust is basically a traditional fairytale, but one that is infused with off-kilter humor in its extravagance. Part of the film’s charm rests in its insistence on the genuineness underpinning its whimsy. Set in the English village of Wall and the magical kingdom of Stormhold, the film tells the coming-of-age story of a young man, Tristan Thorn, whose journey is marked by meetings with stars, swashbuckling pirates, insatiable witches and the like. These are hardly happenstance encounters. Instead, the narrative richly layers upon itself with each new discovery in Stormhold, with countless characters from outlandish backgrounds.
Its fairytale quality translated well for adults by way of timeliness. The film pushes the limits of imagination without denigrating itself. It is fully aware of its improbability and ridiculousness but embraces those qualities freely through its visuals and comedy. There’s immense crossover appeal in Stardust – one that holds up even years later. Ellen Handler Spitz describes classic children’s picture books in a way that can be applied to a film like Stardust:
The picture books that become classics do so, I suspect, because they dare to tackle important and abiding psychological themes and because they convey these themes with craftsmanship and subtlety. Musicality, rhyming, visual artistry, humour, surreal juxtapositions, elegance, simplicity and suspense combine in them to construct layers of meaning that reward countless hours of cross-generational reading. (Merritt, 4)
Those qualities described in the above quote can be found throughout the course of Tristan’s adventures. He is a mostly straight-laced character being thrown into a world of uproariously outrageous characters. For instance, there are the seven potential kings – well, their ghosts – delivering biting commentary that no one but the audience can hear. The pirate Captain Shakespeare sails through sky rather than sea, harvesting lightning from the clouds to barter for riches. Shakespeare and his crew are also presumably fixated on reputation and appearances to a ludicrous point.
Of course, like in every good fairytale, darkness lurks just around the corner. Even then, it is over-the-top. The witches and Septimus (one of the seven princes) express desires to cut out a star’s heart while it still beats only to consume it to attain everlasting life. Jokes themselves take a bizarrely dark turn even when they come from good-natured characters like Tristan himself. At the start of the film, he tells Victoria – the girl he wishes to marry – “I’d go to the Arctic and I’d slaughter a polar bear and bring you back its head.” Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman channel the strange, sobering whimsy of original author Neil Gaiman in these respects: darkly funny but indulgent at the same time.
But balancing out all the eccentricity is the fact that Stardust easily hits home emotionally. Tristan steps into his destiny the moment he crosses over to the magical side, learning about love above all else – not just for others, but for himself as well. Concepts of masculinity and femininity buttress the shiny action, giving weight and nuance to the absurdity. Vaughn crafts a universal story buoyed by very human concerns about growing up and finding one’s own place in the world. It just so happens that that world is filled with fantastical, weird things. By approaching it like a timeless fairytale with all the stereotypical fixings and kind of turning them on their head, Vaughn is able to capitalize on those tropes to create a meaningful narrative that is also full of spirit.
This has become a recognizable quality in his films, albeit appearing in more controlled doses. It isn’t typically whimsical anymore in a sense that nothing Vaughn has done since Stardust is particularly light-hearted or even fantasy-based. But given that his films are usually set in heightened realities, they can be effortlessly exaggerated nonetheless.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is another Vaughn film that comprises equal parts odd hilarity and coming-of-age, except that it is set in modern-day London. Eggsy Unwin battles assumptions about his upbringing and character to become a “gentleman.” Like Tristan, Eggsy’s Kingsman training enhances skills and traits he already possesses but was always too afraid to tap into.
But then there is unusual humor undercutting everything in perfect juxtaposition. The action and violence are incredibly overblown. Right at the beginning of the film, Jack Davenport literally gets sliced in half and peels apart. Eggsy and his mentor Harry Hart fight bad guys with upgraded everyday objects, including bulletproof umbrellas and poisoned knives hidden in pairs of Oxfords. The extended church fight scene is enough to render one speechless at the slick choreography and the sheer level of ferocity. And who could forget the sequence where everyone’s heads literally blow up in colorful puffs of smoke with a comical score to match? Kingsman is borderline cartoonish in its dynamic, kinetic camera movements and fluid choreography. It becomes a delight to watch, just as Stardust is, although for entirely different reasons.
At their core, Vaughn’s most memorable films disregard nihilism. Particularly, Stardust and Kingsman showcase Vaughn’s ability to craft purely fun narratives without being devoid of emotion or meaning. There is a discernible pattern of stylized indulgence in both films that embrace both earnestness and whimsy.
Vaughn’s films don’t answer glaring philosophical questions, but that’s okay. His films stand out amongst a slew of others that are overly focused on somberness, despite them being made for pure entertainment as well. “Fun,” “light-hearted” and “simple” aren’t inherently negative words to describe films anyway. As Harry says in Kingsman, “Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.”