August 16, 2007

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Stardust (PG-13)
A slightly naÔve young man tries to win the heart of a rather awful girl by traveling through a land of fashion-conscious pirates and beauty-conscious witches to bring her a fallen star (which turns out to be a somewhat complainy girl) in Stardust, a captivating fairy tale adventure.

A young man named Dunstan (Ben Barnes) is curious about the enchanted land rumored to lay beyond a wall in his charming English village of, well, Wall. One night, he outsmarts the ancient guard (David Kelly) watching a passage way through the wall and stumbles into the market town on the other side. There he meets a girl (Kate Magowan) who is being held as a slave by a particularly bitchy witch (Melanie Hill). The witch goes to the pub for some ale and the slave girl decides to have a little fun with the visiting Dunstan. Eventually, Dunstan travels back to the unmagical Wall and, nine months later, the same guard he evaded before shows up at his door to hand Dunstan a basket left at the wall for him. In that basket is baby Tristan, whom the witch forbad the girl to keep.

Many years later, Tristan (Charlie Cox) is a sweet young man full of dreams of finding adventure beyond his job as a shop boy and full of love for local beauty Victoria (Sienna Miller). To those not besotted with Victoria, itís fairly obvious that sheís basically insufferable. To Tristan, she is perfection personified. Even though Victoria only allows Tristan in her company when she wants something from him, Tristan wonít stop believing that he has a chance with her. He blows his savings to buy her champagne for her birthday and then takes her out to look at the stars. When they see a falling star, Tristan declares he will go get it for her, and asks her to wait before accepting a snobby boyís hand in marriage until he comes back with the star.

Tristan goes down to the wall (beyond which the star fell) and tries to fake out the guard much as his dad had. But, though in his 90s, the guard has learned a few things and Tristan winds up heading home to dad with a bruised head. He did, however, learn from the guard that his dad had once successfully traveled beyond the wall and, once that secret is out, his dad explains Tristanís origins and gives him some items from Tristanís mother, one of which is a candle which Tristan lights, after which he is immediately whooshed to the site of the starís touch down.

There, he meets Yvaine (Claire Danes), whom Tristan quickly realizes is the fallen star. With much persuasion and some kidnapping, heís able to convince her to go back to Victoria with him on the condition that, once Tristan presents Victoria with this ďstar,Ē Yvaine will get the rest of the magic candle and whoosh herself home.

Meanwhile, Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer) and her two sisters Empusa (Sarah Alexander) and Mormo (Joanne Scanlan) have also seen the star fall. They want it for themselves because if they can cut out the starís heart and eat it this broken-down, Botox-sorely-needing trio of witches will recapture their youth and their magical powers.

Meanwhile, the King (Peter OíToole) of this magic land is dying and the remaining of his seven sons (helpfully named Primus through Septimus) are vying for the crown. Vying so seriously, in fact, that one of them pushes another out a window at the fatherís deathbed as heís contemplating a successor. Right before dying, the king decides to chuck his big royal ruby out the window after first turning it into a diamond. The son who finds it and turns it back into a ruby will be king. Though in his final moments, the King still has quite the arm because itís the flying ruby-diamond that smacks into the star Yvaine and knocks her out of the sky to begin with.

On the way back to Wall with Yvaine, Tristan has the kind of adventures heís always dreamed of ó battling witches, getting turned into a mouse, learning how to swordfight from a secretly foppish pirate (Robert De Niro, having a big pile of fun). The movie takes us from one enchanted setting to the next, each containing strange and slyly funny characters (a minor part by Ricky Gervais is particularly well done). The dead sons (whose numbers increase as the movie wears on) follow the living ones around like a Greek chorus, bemoaning the obtuseness of their surviving brothers. None of the characters or situations are ever exactly as they seem the first time we see them. Everything becomes more complex, more surprising, more fun the longer the movie stays with it.

Perhaps because itís hitting theaters in the dubious release month of August or perhaps because its trailers offered such a scattered take on the story, I didnít go in to Stardust expecting much. A low-rent The Princess Bride, maybe, since that was the movie trailers compared this one to. Stardust certainly has shades of that earlier clever fairy tale ó sarcastic or strange supporting characters, a sweet love story, an entertaining villain. Whether Stardust will prove as enduring, itís hard to say. Will Gervais be as funny in 20 years as Billy Crystal still is in The Princess Bride, now two decades old?

For now, Stardust is enchanting. Its characters are well constructed, as is its story and its dialogue, which deftly walks the line between overly earnest and Shrek-level snark. The love story is charming enough to make you care without being syrupy. The magic is well-done, just enough CGI hocus pocus to pull you into the fairy-ness of the tale.

And even if you donít like fairy tales, arenít looking for magic-tinged romance and canít stand the thought of another Pfieffer villain, Stardust has one selling point that must pique the curiosity of even the most serious movie fan. Mr. High Arts Tribeca Film Festival Robert De Niro might be an Al Pacino contemporary but where Pacino is pure ham and cheese in his campier roles, De Niro manages to waltz through this cotton candy without too much winking at the screen and almost no scenery-chewing. Heís a brilliant actor in a somewhat silly role having an infectious amount of fun ó that performance is worth the ticket price alone. Also? He wears a lacy corset and frilly stockings. Now that is priceless. B+

Rated PG-13 for some fantasy violence and risquť humor. Directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Jane Goldman and Vaughn from a novel by Neil Gaiman, Stardust is two hours and eight minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Paramount Pictures