Fantasy is hard to find in the movies -- for every "Lord of the Rings," there's only a handful of bad sword'n'sorcery tales for kids ("Eragon," "The Seeker"). As for fairy tales, forget it.
But one little fairy tale HAS made its way into theatres -- an enchanting little story loosely based on a Neil Gaiman novel. And "Stardust's" charm is its lack of pretension, and its willingness to be silly, romantic, fantastical, sparkling and most importantly, tongue-in-cheek. And it has pirates too.
A wall separates our world from the world of magic -- and one night, Dunstan Thorn went over it, and had a brief tryst with a beautiful princess, who is imprisoned by a witch. Nine months later, baby Tristan is left on his doorstep.
Nineteen years later, a dying king magically flings a ruby into the sky, and says that the prince who finds it will be the new king. The two remaining princes -- and the ghosts of their dead brothers -- et off to find it. But that ruby dislodged a star, and it plummets to the ground across the Wall -- attracting the attention of three ancient witches, who use the hearts of stars to restore their spent youth.
Still with me?
Tristan (Charlie Cox) also sees the star, and the snotty girl he adores (Sienna Miller) says that she will marry him if he gets her the star before her birthday. Tristan does manage to find and entrap the beautiful star, Yvaine (Claire Danes), and they start off on a magical adventure of air pirates, unicorns, evil witches, and true love.
"Stardust" has pretty much all the requirements for a fantasy and/or fairy tale movie -- magic, love, an evil villain, and lots of odd characters to round out the cast, and flesh out the story. Not much is actually new. But like the original Gaiman tale, the movie winks affectionately at you as the story unfolds.
In fact, the movie only really stumbles when it stops to ruminate on true love and how precious it is, etc. Cute, but boring -- especially since the romantic leanings of the leads are pretty clear. Director Matthew Vaughn really shines when he's focusing on airships, goat-men, and the occasional magical sword-fight with an dead man.
Despite the scattered nature of the plot, Vaughn directs with a smooth, sure hand, and he sprinkles plenty of comic relief through it -- Captain Shakespeare dancing in drag, or the Greek chorus of murdered princes. And the dialogue avoids fantastical pomposity by being just as tongue-in-cheek ("Nothing says "romance" like a kidnapped injured woman!")
Cox makes an excellent wide-eyed, slightly blinkered country boy, who turns from a bumbling suitor to a strong young hero. Danes isn't quite as ethereal as one would expect Yvain to be, but she gives a solid performance, and Miller is perfect as the snotty, shallow Victoria.
But while the younger performers are solid, the veterans are absolutely brilliant. Pfeiffer is hilarious, chilling and pouty as the constantly frustrated witch, and De Niro steals the show as a cuddly, twinkly-eyed gay pirate who pretends to be brutal. And Peter O'Toole and David Kelly have brief but brilliant appearances.
"Stardust" is exactly what the title suggests -- sparkling, funny, wry, and just deep enough to be entertaining. A solid, sweet little fantasy movie.