I first heard of Stardust when it was introduced as one of the options at a summer camp movie night. When a vote was taken on what to watch, few people voted for it, and I can guess why. Its lesser-known status in comparison with the multi-film franchises it was competing with, in combination with its lackluster DVD cover, gave it an “off-brand” aura. One worried its production value would be closer to that of a made-for-TV movie than a theatrical release. Thankfully, this is not the case. Stardust is every bit as spectacular as its contemporaries. Why, then, has it been less celebrated? When I did end up watching the film for the first time, a few years later, it was love at first sight. Stardust gave me something other modern fantasy movies didn’t. Now I wonder if these same differences which made it so attractive to me are what made it less desirable to others.
It’s important to identify the similar movies I was comparing Stardust to. The two fantasy series I was most familiar with growing up were The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. The Chronicles of Narnia was the predominant fantasy adventure world of my childhood and in my early teens The Lord of the Rings was presented to me as its more beautiful, poetic and less overtly Christian older brother. What stood out to me about Stardust was a feeling of play that seemed absent in the other two stories. A story’s magic is a vessel for the imagination of the writer. Imagination is a force that allows us to envision phenomena which do not exist in our world, and in storytelling these fantasies manifest as magical beings and abilities; therefore, the magical content of a story is a window into its spirit. The magic of Stardust is playful, and as a result its world feels so much more free, creative and open; its tone is more aligned with that of a romantic comedy (making it the worthiest 21st-century spiritual successor to The Princess Bride). Why, then, are these other more well-known fantasy movies so the opposite?
The Christian influences in Narnia and Lord of the Rings which made them welcome in the Christian home my parents tried to maintain are precisely what make their fantasy worlds feel more restrictive. More specifically, the worlds of Stardust and The Princess Bride are colorful while these other fantasy worlds are divided into black and white because their Christian perspective creates a world centered around a conflict between good and evil. Narnia and Lord of the Rings portray a world at war; war narratives restrict personal agency. Even the choice between two colors is nonexistent: by positioning a conflict between two sides as a conflict between good and evil, one is not even creating a binary but rather a monad, because you are told which of these two sides to be on. In peace fantasies, magic is a tool which can be used in diverse ways, in war fantasies, the importance of the central conflict demands the tool become a weapon. Magic becomes a wizard using a staff to shoot a beam of white energy at another wizard using a wand to shoot a beam of dark energy, and we pretend this is entertaining.
This structure contains undercurrents of a Christian discomfort with magic which was heightened within my family; we avoided fantasy worlds like Harry Potter. When I grew up and watched the Harry Potter movies on my own, I enjoyed them more than Narnia and Lord of the Rings because the aesthetic of the movies put the appeal of learning magic at the forefront, which is what conservative Christians hated about them. Consider that every miracle in the Bible was technically magic God allowed a human to wield, but this was always in the larger good vs. evil context of bringing God glory (as opposed to the diverse contexts within which magic is used in pagan mythologies); magic falls into the forbidden realm of “witchcraft” only when it is pursued for its own sake. Of course the irony of a trans woman praising a franchise created by a transphobe isn’t lost on me, but I see J.K. Rowling’s transphobia and the flaws in Harry Potter as stemming from the same source. The appeal of Harry Potter is the aesthetic backdrop of magical education which presents endless possibilities for interesting fantasies, and while Rowling is imaginative enough to satisfy to an extent in this department, she is also too stupid and lazy to extend her imagination beyond certain familiar regressive ideas.
Within the first three films the best elements of the series are most visible: the childlike sense of wonder one feels at this torchlit castle, the fun of the witchy costumes, mythical creatures and magical shenanigans. Yet to create a sense of momentum to the series, magical war is introduced and the series becomes more boring the more this war is brought to the forefront. Liberal Christians defend Harry Potter by pointing out that beneath the aesthetics of witchcraft is a confirmation of Christianity’s narrative of supernatural good vs. evil conflict, yet this war narrative is not a redeeming quality, but rather the series’ greatest moral failing.
In the defense of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, both books were written at one of the most reasonable times in human history to embrace the good vs. evil war narrative. One should also note both film series were made and released in 2000s America, a time and place defined by the Iraq War. Perhaps this is why Stardust, a movie which is distinct from these other examples for its peacetime setting, did not resonate with audiences as strongly (one wonders if The Princess Bride would have fared equally poorly as a 00s release, or if Stardust would have been more successful in the 80s).
There are villains in Stardust but they are not on sides. There is no big The Enemy; the narrative is a collection of characters criss-crossing each other’s paths in pursuit of their own selfish motivations; the difference between the “heroes” and the “villains” is the villains’ willingness to inflict harm on others in the process. On the other hand, the central Cause which defines wartime fantasy worlds becomes a juggernaut which consumes characters’ paths and motivations; to Play in the time when War is necessary is inappropriate. In the absence of this Cause, though, our hearts are stirred through the observation of other Goods to be aspired to, such as romantic love, as is the case in Stardust. Both types of fantasy allow the audience to engage with a feeling of heroism, yet in Stardust and The Princess Bride that heroism takes place on a smaller scale; one need not save the world from a race of demons for one’s actions to feel meaningful.
This is the feature of Stardust which stood out to me most on this rewatch as the core ingredient to which I could attribute everything I liked about it, but there are many other reasons to celebrate this cult classic. It’s a cornerstone example of Neil Gaiman’s brilliance as a storyteller, for one; it uses CGI without abusing it; and most importantly, it understands how to use eye-catching action, costuming, scenery and set pieces to deliver spectacle. War narratives often portray conflict between a diverse “us” and a uniform faceless “them”, when conflict by its very nature creates the conformity we are supposedly rallying to defeat; because America cannot rid itself of its holy war myth, it now threatens to go to war with itself, which is why now more than ever we must recognize the connection between fantasies of war and the desire for a monoculture. When we realize and act upon the need to move away from the war fantasies that still occupy such a central place in our culture, we can begin to generate and celebrate fantasies which are free and open to a diversity of new possibilities, and maybe somewhere within that cultural shift, Stardust will receive the re-appreciation it deserves.