Dream Cleaver

Claire Danes: Hoofin' it. Photo by David James.

Stardust is less an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 1999 novel than of its dust-jacket synopsis.

Lost in Stardust is the poetry of Gaiman's writing, replaced by brute-force storytelling.Still, Gaiman's narrative is sturdy enough to survive, for the most part, the whittling, flaying and butchering of writers Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, the latter of whom also directed after most recently baking Layer Cakewith cocaine and gristle.

Gaiman's story is as old as papyrus—a quest tale in which a young man named Tristan (the generic Charlie Cox) must endure myriad perils—among them duplicitous kings, vengeful witches and lightning-collecting pirates—to fetch a fallen star that's the object of his alleged True Love's deepest desires. (The True Love, in this instance, is played by Sienna Miller, who proved in Steve Buscemi's hysterically overwrought Interviewshe's capable of getting any man to do or say anything, no matter how ridiculous the request.)

Alas, the star's far more than a radiant rock; she's a girl called Yvaine, played by Claire Danes, who's furious about her new earthbound digs and far more woman than our hero's shallow temptress. But Tristan's not the only person in the fantasyland of Stormhold seeking the star. Also on her trail are a trio of aging witches—chief among them Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), who must devour Yvaine's heart before her brittle bones and brutally weathered visages completely disintegrate—and two would-be kings, Primus (Jason Flemyng) and Septimus (Mark Strong), who need Yvaine's glowing necklace before they can take their father's throne.

No doubt Stardustwill accrue many comparisons to Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride, but Vaughn's variation on the theme isn't as playful as Reiner's. Stardustdoesn't troll for big laughs; it's more heartfelt than Reiner's parody, more earnest homage than giddy wink-wink. And that's all Gaiman's doing: He doesn't create characters to make fun of them, but so we can love them as much as he does.

That's why when Stardust does devolve into comedy, it fails miserably. Robert De Niro, once more trying to make people laugh on purpose, shows up halfway through as Captain Shakespeare, the closeted, cross-dressing captain of a high-flying pirate ship, rescuing Yvaine and Tristan from a cloud upon which they've been stranded. Shakespeare doesn't actually appear in the book; there is only a minor character named Captain Alberic, who comes without the feather boas and mincing gestures. Shakespeare not only doesn't fit into the story, but he's also a distraction—a reminder that, hey, this is just a silly movie about silly things starring famous people acting all silly.

Just when you're willing to forgive Vaughn the copious liberties he's taken with Gaiman's material, here comes something totally unpardonable—the great De Niro flouncing about in a gown, the very opposite of magical. (He's no Billy Crystal, after all, and there is no storming of the castle, alas.) Just as indefensible is any movie that casts Ricky Gervais as a stealer and seller of magical objects, then takes away his voice. It's almost like casting Peter O'Toole, only to kill him off within the first two minutes he's onscreen—which, yes, Stardustalso manages to do, shame.

Maybe Vaughn, heretofore a maker of overblown Brit gangster films (he also produced Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrelsand Snatch), doesn't completely get it—or doesn't want to admit he does. At times, he revels in the beauty and fragility of Gaiman's creation, but then he gets a little lost on his way—like he's almost embarrassed to fully commit to the magic, so he keeps having to remind us it's all a dream.


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