Neil Gaiman has been partially responsible for two of the most undervalued fantasy films of the last 10 years: "Princess Mononoke" and "MirrorMask," for which he wrote screenplays. His third time should be the charm.
"Stardust" adapts his novel of the same name. Its words come from two folks making their debut as feature screenwriters, Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn. Yet its sensibility stays true to Gaiman's style: heroic, wryly funny, but bloodthirsty as great fairy tales can often be.
"Stardust" takes a standard structure -- young hero of unrecognized worth goes on a quest to save a damsel -- and plays charming variations on that theme.
He's Tristan (Charlie Cox), who has promised fickle girlfriend Victoria (Sienna Miller) to bring back a fallen star as a token of his love. When he reaches the crater where the star lies, he sees Yvaine (Claire Danes), a literally glowing lass in human form. Many less appealing people want her, too. Septimus (Mark Strong), self-presumed heir to the kingdom of Stormhold, needs a diadem she wears that will confirm his right to rule. The witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her sisters require Yvaine's heart, which will prolong their lonely lives for centuries.
Only Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), the least butch pirate ever to set sail, agrees to help the endangered couple. With his assistance, plus a boxful of lightning he's gathered from stormy skies, they have a chance.
The masterstroke of the story is to set Tristan's ordinary home town of Wall next to the magical realm of Stormhold. An ancient guardian (David Kelly) tries to keep mortals from crossing over to the enchanted world, and an even more ancient law prevents Yvaine from entering Wall: If she does, she'll turn to stardust. The allegory is clear: You and I might be living among miracles and magic, if we had eyes to see and remained open to the possibility.
At times, the riches of the movie overflow. Shakespeare's a distraction, dancing in makeup to an Offenbach can-can while he fondles a frilly dress. De Niro has zest, but his unshakable accent puts Stormhold too close to the Bronx. (Wait a minute. There is a Wall Township, N.J...)
Yet Danes and Cox have precisely the right innocence and warmth, and the supporting cast of Brits yields an endless string of funny cameos. (Look for Rupert Everett as one of Septimus' ill-fated brothers and Ricky Gervais, surely improvising, as a puffed-up fence.) Peter O'Toole, flat on his back in his lone scene, has special fun as a dying, bloodthirsty monarch. Oscar alert!