Once upon a bawdy time . . .

Posted: August 10, 2007

'Are we humble because we gaze at the stars, or do the stars gaze at us because we are humble?" narrator Ian McKellen asks at the beginning of Stardust. It's a question that doesn't really get answered in director Matthew Vaughn's doggedly whimsical romantic fantasy, because everybody's too busy with crazy witches, gay buccaneers, miniature elephants and magical unicorns to care.

A mash-up of Tolkien, the Grimms and Monty Python, with a young, lovestruck hero (Charlie Cox) and an otherworldly beauty (Claire Danes) traipsing around a magical alternate universe, this unrestrained romp brings a bit of bawdiness to the too-precious precincts of the "once upon a time" fairy tale. But it also brings too much of everything to the table: It's the cinema equivalent of a long, winding, run-on sentence.

Adapted from the heavily illustrated Neil Gaiman novel ("a romance within the realms of faerie," it says on the book jacket), Stardust begins with a teenage lad, Tristran, venturing beyond the quaint English town of Wall to retrieve a falling star for Victoria (the busy Sienna Miller), the girl he thinks he loves. This requires eluding an old, crotchety guard and crossing a stone barrier into the forbidden woods (shades of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village).

Turns out, though, that the fallen star has metamorphosed into Claire Danes with blond highlights and a quasi-English accent. Her name is Yvaine, and she's good with a sharp riposte, as when Tristran explains why he's dragging her back to Wall, to give to Victoria. "Nothing says romance like the gift of a wounded, captive woman," quips Yvaine - and so the Renaissance Faire frisson between Tristran and Yvaine is established.

It also turns out that Tristran is not the only one in search of this fallen-star-turned-femme. There's a wicked hag (Michelle Pfeiffer, seemingly single-handedly remaking The Witches of Eastwick), who will turn young again if she gets her hands on Yvaine. And then there's the business of royal successorship: An ancient and dying Lord Stormhold (a cadaverous Peter O'Toole) has three living sons vying for the throne - not to mention four dead ones, who reappear in ghostly fashion.

Get your hands on the fallen star and the crown is yours, they think.

Director Vaughn, whose sleek English crime pic Layer Cake introduced Daniel Craig to the world, goes to altogether different places here. Long, larky, with gossamer visual effects and featuring a painfully prancing performance from Robert De Niro as a crossdressing pirate, Stardust is vigorously over-the-top.

Humble it is not.

Stardust **1/2 (Out of four stars)

Directed by Matthew Vaughn. With Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Sienna Miller, Robert De Niro and Peter O'Toole. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, sex, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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