Based on cult comic-book writer Neil Gaiman's (Sandman) 1999 novel and directed by Matthew Vaughn, who showcased Daniel Craig in the tricky U.K. gangster film LAYER CAKE (2005), this revisionist fairy tale is never quite able to find its tone.
Victorian lad Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox) lives with his father (Nathaniel Parker) in the small English town of Wall, so named because of the ancient wall that surrounds it... not to keep beasts human or animal out, but to keep the good people of Wall in. The serene meadow beyond the wall is actually no such thing: It's the portal to Stormhold, an enchanted world of witches, pirates, unicorns and enchanted princesses, one of whom was Tristan's mother. But he doesn't know that: He only knows that he's besotted by town beauty Victoria (Sienna Miller) and will do anything to impress her. So he promises to retrieve a falling star for her, a promise that takes him to the heart of Stormhold and into the orbit of Yvaine (Claire Danes). The star, it turns out, isn't a lump of celestial rock but a lovely, bracingly bad-tempered young woman who's conspicuously unenthusiastic about being hauled to Wall as a gift for some mortal flibbertigibbet. But there are far more sinister forces in search of Yvaine. Prince Septimus (Mark Strong) has systematically murdered his brothers (Jason Flemyng, Rupert Everett, Mark Heap, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Adam Buxton and David Williams, who all hang around as gray-faced ghosts) in his quest to become Stormhold's king, but must still retrieve the magical pendant his father (Peter O'Toole) flung from his deathbed into the heavens. That pendant knocked Yvaine from the sky and now hangs around her neck. Witches Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her sisters (Sarah Alexander, Joanna Scanlan) merely want Yvaine's heart literally: Eating the heart of a fallen star confers beauty, power and immortality.
Gaiman's Stardust is a sly bildungsroman whose discursive mix of romance, adventure and self-discovery is filtered through the prism of fairy-tale conventions, tweaked with quirky, deeply affectionate care. The film is a conflicted thing, simplified to accommodate rigid Hollywood notions of good storytelling while trying desperately to emulate the high-spirited self-awareness of THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987). The film stumbles painfully when it tries to be funny: Robert De Niro's star turn as the notorious pirate Captain Shakespeare, a mincing, closeted cross-dresser who thinks mistakenly that he looks pretty in pink, is cringe=inducing. Thank goodness for Pfeiffer's Lamia, a harridan who's lived long enough to get the face she deserves and will do anything to hide it. She's a wicked delight.
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