Once upon a time, in a land called Hollywood, the jester Meathead (secretly director Rob Reiner) decided to expose his true identity as a prince of the projector. Polishing his pate to a luster and making a wish for a blockbuster, he proved himself thrice worthy. Still questing acclaim, he decided to cast a really big spell with a magnificent fairy tale, "The Princess Bride."
And so it came to pass that the young and the young-at-heart alike were granted their wish: a movie for the whole family. It is the sweet, slightly silly story of Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world, and her true love Westley, a farm boy from the kingdom of Florin. Two-time Oscar-winner William Goldman, tongue in cheek and a twinkle in his eye, adapts his bestselling novel for Reiner's splendid romantic adventure.
In truth, it's a story within a story, which finds a boy, bedridden with the flu, at the mercy of his cheek-pinching grandfather. The old-timer reads aloud to him from the book "The Princess Bride." The boy, who prefers computer games, is less than thrilled. "Is this a kissing book?" he demands. Grandfather reassures him with promises of monsters, mayhem and chase scenes. Ten-year-old Fred Savage as the grandson and Peter Falk as the grandfather grow closer as the story of Buttercup and Westley comes to life.
The characters are classics, played to a fare-thee-well by an eclectic, entirely credible cast led by Robin Wright of the sudsy "Santa Barbara." Wright has the title role, her first in film, as a heroine as dense as a Disney inge'nue but as impishly up-to-date as Di.
Cary Elwes, who was the queen's consort in the costume drama "Lady Jane," is no stranger to partnering princesses. He plays the most optimistic protagonist since Superman, part Errol Flynn, part Leo Buscaglia -- a rube turned swashbuckler in pursuit of perfect love. "Was that so terrible?" he says to his companion after an early scrape with the outsize, ravenous rodents of the Swamp of Despair. Anon, Buttercup, believing Westley drowned, has agreed to marry the smarmy Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) but she is snatched by ruffians and the adventure is truly begun. The kissing stops and we get to the good parts.
There's Arthurian action-comedy, set in the ruined castles and rolling hills of England and studded with stylistic, eccentric actors. Billy Crystal, one of the most memorable, not only steals his scenes, he plunders them. He plays Miracle Max, a Yiddishe wizard who gives the hero CPR with a bellows. "I've seen woise," he says of Westley, who luckily is only mostly dead. Carol Kane is also an asset as his wizened wife Valerie, a Hobbity-looking buttinsky who shares his hovel.
Mandy Patinkin is absorbed by his role of Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya, complete with a crazy-quilt Castilian accent. Montoya, one of the kidnapers, is a free-lance swordsman hired by medieval mafioso Vizzini, played with relish by Wallace Shawn of "My Dinner With Andre."
Andre (not the one from dinner) the Giant costars as the gang's strong man, Fezzik, a good-hearted colossus with a Schwarzeneggian brogue that is even muddier than Patinkin's. But presence -- 525 pounds' worth -- is what counts when you're talking giants. Fezzik, a bad giant in the beginning, is bested by Westley, because he is used to fighting large groups and the moves are different man-on-man. He falls like a sequoia under the saw. "Sleep well ... and dream of large women," says Westley over the unconscious big guy.
It may sound like Mel Brooks and the Holy Grail, but the parody is never that coarse. The characters really believe in their mission. If they didn't believe, the little boy wouldn't.
Goldman, who first wrote the screenplay in 1973, keeps things screwy, lightly twisted, but sincere and endearing. He revised the script for Reiner, who was attracted to the relationship between the grandson and the grandfather. The two characters interrupt the fairy tale to quip, argue and get better acquainted. "It isn't fair," protests the boy when poor Buttercup is about to marry the evil Prince Humperdinck. "Life isn't fair," says his grandfather gently.
As a good fairy tale should, "The Princess Bride" teaches but never preaches. It's a lively, fun-loving, but nevertheless epic look at the nature of true love. And, of course, that means living happily ever after.
The Princess Bride, playing at area theaters, is rated PG.