Twinkling 'Stardust'
Charming Fantasy-Adventure-Romance Is Overwhelmed by a Galaxy of Effects

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007

Are you snapping out of your latest "Harry Potter" swoon? Do you desperately need a post-"Lord of the Rings" fantasy fix? Has movie romance failed to measure up since "The Princess Bride"?

Then hie thee to "Stardust," a supernatural fantasy-action adventure whose combination of whimsy and gothic melodrama seems to have been cobbled together from focus groups held at Comic-Con and Renaissance fairs. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman, "Stardust" has it all: sweetness, magic, lusty wenches, evil witches, a swishy Robert De Niro. What it doesn't have is the tight focus and economy that seem to be lost values in today's Hollywood; overstuffed and overlong, this is a movie made with the "we paid for it, we're leaving it in" ethic of CGI-driven filmmaking.

The result is a decidedly mixed bag -- made of meticulously crafted Ye Olde English burlap, mind you -- of delights, digressions and outright puzzlements.

Set in a tiny village of an indeterminate era, "Stardust" tells the story of young Tristran (Charlie Cox), a humble shop boy who falls in love with the snooty Victoria (Sienna Miller) and vows to prove his love by fetching her a fallen star. His journey to fetch the astral trinket takes him beyond a magical wall that has forever separated his village (named Wall) from the magical kingdom of Stormhold. When he finds his quarry, it turns out to be a young silver-gowned beauty named Yvaine (Claire Danes), who for reasons too convoluted to go into here, is also being pursued by a wizened old witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the heirs to Stormhold's throne.

One of the chief aforementioned delights of "Stardust," which was directed by Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake"), is the 24-year-old Cox, a relative newcomer who proves to be a terrifically appealing leading man. Starting out as a dorky milquetoast, he made an extraordinarily convincing, even sexy, transformation into a swashbuckling, macho hero. If Danes, for her part, generates little heat as she smiles and glows (literally) on cue, Cox makes up for her bland presence to shine on his own, without benefit of special effects.

Even as "Stardust" lags under a surfeit of computer-generated green smoke and tricky effects (such as the merry band of ghosties who serve as a spectral chorus throughout the proceedings), it is shot through with wit and detail, and the opulent costumes and settings that make such cinematic journeys worth the trip. From the cleverly designed buttons on the coat of a character named Septimus to the sweeping English landscape that serves as the story's enchanted backdrop, "Stardust" offers the kind of vacation from everyday cares and logic that is supremely welcome during summer's dog days.

Pfeiffer, as the youth-obsessed witch named Lamia, takes winking command of a role in which she gets to resuscitate her images as a screen goddess, then cruelly ages as spots, sags and bags appear with unforgiving swiftness; it's a performance that can't help remind viewers of the plight facing Pfeiffer and her fellow actresses of a certain age in Hollywood.

But where such veterans as Pfeiffer and Peter O'Toole give "Stardust" a jolt of in-for-a-penny good humor, Robert De Niro's turn as Captain Shakespeare (don't ask me), a cross-dressing pirate, isn't nearly as successful. During an interminable middle passage aboard Shakespeare's flying ship, the man known for playing such toughs as Jake La Motta and Jimmy Conway camps it up -- think less a riff on Keith Richards and more "La Cage Aux Folles" -- in a performance that can only be described as deranged. (The weird sequence does have a payoff, however, in the form of a briefly inspired verbal duet by Shakespeare and Ricky Gervais's Ferdy the Fence.)

Things finally come to a dramatic, clattering end in "Stardust," which, befitting of a fairy tale of its scope, concludes with visual and melodramatic overkill. Larded with too much innuendo and adult humor to qualify as a kids' movie, too twee to be considered purely adult fare, "Stardust" occupies that strange piece of middle earth reserved for grown-ups who crave the time and space to let their inner children come out and play.

Stardust (128 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and some risque humor.

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