By Joe Lozito
Like many fantasy films, "Stardust" - based on Neil Gaiman's intricate fairytale novel - tells a simple story in an extraordinary environment: a boy with a mysterious past aims to win the love of a fair maiden and must battle all manner of villains along the way. There are witches, evil Princes and even flying pirates to contend with. But while "Stardust", with its deadpan wit, aims to be a "Princess Bride", it feels more like "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" without the visionary director.
The screenplay by the novelist Jane Goldman does a fine job distilling Mr. Gaiman's extensive enchanted world into a digestible story for an attentive audience. The opening narration by the liquid-voiced Ian McKellen sets up the town of Wall, so named due to its four-foot high stone border. The wall of Wall separates it from the magical kingdom of Stormhold and, apparently, no one has crossed that border for centuries. Until, of course, someone does and our story kicks off. Okay, so that's a bit of an iffy premise - there's no mention, for example, of what happens if you follow the wall north or south. But Ms. Goldman's clever script hopscotches past such trifles and, really, what more do you need to start off a fantasy movie?
Somehow, when the King of Stormhold - played in a delicious throw-away cameo by Peter O'Toole - kicks the bucket, it causes a star to fall from the night sky and everyone wants a piece of it, including his three malevolent sons (the only survivors out of seven) who need it in order to claim the throne. More troubling is a wicked witch seeking eternal beauty played to perfection by the eternally beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer. You see, the star isn't simply a hunk of heavenly rock; it is actually personified in human form by none other than Claire Danes. I believe I used the word "luminous" to describe Ms. Danes in "Shopgirl"
so, for me, it's almost typecasting to put her in the role of a star made manifest. Coming to the rescue is a Shopboy (no, really, he works in a shop) played by Charlie Cox (Mr. Cox possesses the looks but little of the charisma of Robert Sean Leonard), who vows to present the star to the girl of his dreams (a playful Sienna Miller) in order to win her heart.
With all this in motion, this simple fairytale gets a bit more complex than it needs to. And I haven't even mentioned Ricky Gervais in a muggy cameo as Ferdy the Fence or Robert De Niro's painfully miscast turn as Captain Shakespeare. As the closeted leader of a flying group of lightning catchers (imagine a stormy episode of "The Deadliest Catch"), the actor opts to keep both his Brooklyn accent and lines such as "You impudent pup". Like much of the film, it probably worked better on paper.
"Stardust" is at best a pedestrian adaptation of the rich source material by the legendary Mr. Gaiman (of the "Sandman" series). The direction by Guy Ritchie-mainstay Matthew Vaughn - whose sole directing credit is the 2004 Daniel Craig actioner "Layer Cake" - lacks that essential overriding vision to make Stormhold and the rest of the "Stardust" world more than just a costume ball. It doesn't help that the special effects, particularly when Capt. Shakespeare's ship goes aquatic, underwhelm. Despite the game cast, particularly Ms. Pfeiffer and Ms. Danes, "Stardust" only twinkles when it should shine.