In "Stardust," based on the book by Neil Gaiman, a Victorian village named Wall borders Stormhold, a parallel universe kingdom. The division goes even further: sequences in Wall are deliberately otherworldly, while scenes in Stormhold are more realistic.
The agenda is clear: We are supposed to recognize the magical in the everyday, and vice versa. Pulling this off requires a filmmaker with an extraordinary breadth of vision and Matthew Vaughn, the director and co-writer, isn't quite that.
His previous experience is as a producer on gangster films such as "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" as well as directing one of his own, "Layer Cake." These are not the credits you would expect from the director of a lyrical fantasia. It turns out that he is more comfortable with the magical than with the mundane, and that's not all bad. Fantasy movies are often so gossamer thin that they float away while you're watching them. "Stardust" has a welcome heft.
Tristran Thorne (Charlie Cox) is a resourceful shop boy who promises the pretty Victoria (Sienna Miller) he will venture across the forbidden wall separating his village from its parallel world and bring her back a fallen star. It turns out the star is, in fact, the sylphlike Yvaine (Claire Danes), who doesn't want to be rescued.
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In other words, they're a love match and their initial hook-up is a fantasy movie version of meeting cute.
Throughout their odyssey Tristran and Yvaine encounter a pageant of oddballs and connivers, all of whom want something from Yvaine. Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), the witchiest of witches, wants to cut out Yvaine's heart in order to give herself the gift of everlasting life; a set of princes, all contenders to the Stormhold throne of their ailing father (Peter O'Toole), scheme for the jewel around her neck that will ensure their ascendancy.
There's even a pirate, Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), who pilots a flying ship with a crew only slightly less scurvy than the one in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise. Keith Richards played the father of Capt. Jack Sparrow in the last installment but it is Captain Shakespeare, who cross-dresses in the privacy of his chambers, who seems like Sparrow's true patriarch. Watching De Niro sashay in tutu and corset is easily the most otherworldly sight in "Stardust."
Although the captain does not appear in Gaiman's novel, he personifies the writer's anything-goes spirit. (The script was co-written by Gaiman's friend and associate Jane Goldman.) If the movie had been directed by Terry Gilliam – who reportedly turned it down because he was maxed out on fantasy films – it no doubt would have been more explosively imaginative. But then again, Gilliam's "Time Bandits," which Stardust pays homage to, was also exhaustingly imaginative. Vaughn's pokiness, his less-than-visionary visuals, can be rather pleasing. He doesn't try to wallop you with his genius and he works well with his actors.
Danes doesn't quite fit into the mindscape – she's too bland for a human star – but Cox comes of age quite convincingly, De Niro is a hoot, as is Ricky Gervais as a slimy tradesman.
Pfeiffer has a field day. She's not merely channeling herself from "Witches of Eastwick" – or "Hairspray," for that matter. Her Lamia may be a dried-up crone, but when she looks at her reflection and gasps in horror, we gasp in sympathy. Nobody who once looked like Michelle Pfeiffer in her prime should be this shriveled. In moments like these, Yvaine's heart surely belongs in a better place.