Review: Stardust

Shop clerk enters fantasy world to retrieve a fallen star. Solid fantasy is marred by intrusive star turns.

Based on a popular novel by Neil Gaiman, Stardust is for the most part a lighthearted, entertaining adventure that works best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Directed with real flair and opulently packaged, the film stays relatively true to the novel while gently tweaking the fantasy genre. Its cast and plot clearly aim Stardust at older viewers rather than youngsters.

Stardust starts in the nineteenth-century town of Wall, built next to a guarded wall that separates rural England from the magical world of Stormhold. On his deathbed, the Stormhold king (a marvelous Peter O’Toole) sets in motion murderous rivalries among his offspring, who include Primus (Jason Flemyng), Septimus (Rupert Everett), and Una (Kate Magowan), a princess enslaved to a witch.

Back in Wall, Tristan (Charlie Cox), a shop clerk, pursues the vain Victoria (Sienna Miller), despite her engagement to the stuffy Humphrey (Henry Cavill). Brashly promising to bring her back a shooting star they spot one night, Tristan sneaks into Stormhold. There he finds himself in a race with the Stormhold princes and with Larnia (Michelle Pfeiffer), a witch, to recover the star, who turns out to be the demanding Yvaine (Claire Danes).

Spells, transformations, duels, fanciful interludes, and romance follow, presented with an unexpectedly light touch from director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake). The breezy script makes fun of viewers’ expectations, but not at the expense of mocking the story or its characters. While the film lags a bit at the halfway point, Vaughn’s pacing is brisk enough to overcome nagging flaws in the plot’s logic. The special effects are generally low-key and charming, with some impressive outbursts at the climax.

Most of the changes to the novel involve the ending, which has been turned into a rousing battle between Tristan and his enemies. One new character is Shakespeare, a pirate captain with a fondness for petticoats and operettas. Robert De Niro portrays him as a mincing stereotype, a misguided approach that comes close to sinking the entire project. A cameo by Ricky Gervais as a sort of pawnbroker is equally pointless, if not as demeaning.

The best change from the novel is the expanded role of Larnia, a truly devious villainess played with unbridled enthusiasm by Pfeiffer. This is the third and best of her recent comeback roles, one marked by a nastiness and vanity she’s never show before. Pfeiffer is good enough to divert attention from Danes, looking a bit too stolid and acting more petulant than divine. Cox makes a strong showing as a naive youth who must mature into a hero.

Paramount, playing catch-up to franchises like Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean, is banking a lot on Gaiman, who has already complained about the Stardust advertising campaign. Fans may quibble about some of the choices made in the film, but should agree that it captures the spirit of the novel. Others may need stronger persuasion to buy into Stardust‘s magic.

Cast: Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Sienna Miller, Ricky Gervais, Jason Flemyng, Rupert Everett, Peter O’Toole, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Sarah Alexander, Joanna Scanlon, Melanie Hill, Kate Magowan, Henry Cavill, Nathaniel Parker, David Kelly.

Credits: Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Screenplay by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn. Based on the graphic novel written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess. Produced by Matthew Vaughn, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Michael Dreyer, Neil Gaiman. Executive producers: David Womark, Kris Thykier, Peter Morton, Stephen Marks. Director of photography: Ben Davis. Production designer: Gavin Bocquet. Editor: Jon Harris. Costume designer: Sammy Sheldon. Music by Ilan Eshkeri. Visual effects supervisor: Peter Chang. Co-producer: Chantal Feghali. A Paramount Pictures presentation, in association with MARV Films, of a Matthew Vaughn/Lorenzo di Bonaventura production.

Paramount/Color/2.35/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/128 mins./Rated PG-13

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