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August 8-14, 2007

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'Stardust'

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Spelling it out: Michelle Pfeiffer plays Lamia, a wicked witch in 'Stardust.'

Magical

'Stardust' does justice to the high fantasy notions of Neil Gaiman

By Richard von Busack


ALTHOUGH many will compare Stardust to The Princess Bride, the new film has a shrewder, less vaudevillian tone. It displays more invention, more seriousness and a lot more unalloyed pleasure. And it is not Billy Crystalized. Director Matthew Vaughn plays the humor straight, figuring that almost everything in a fairyland has its absurd side already. The rich imagination of Neil Gaiman percolates through; and Stardust has high production values necessary to do Gaiman's ideas justice.

In rural England of the late 1800s, a humble young man, Tristan (Charlie Cox), loves a lovely but cold village girl (Sienna Miller). In a reckless moment, he promises to retrieve a piece of a fallen star for her. And then a star falls on the other side of the wall between the normal world and Stormhold, the world of magic. Tristan finds his star in the form of Yvaine: Claire Danes, with platinum-dyed hair, white satin gown and someone's idea of an English accent. If we have to have a movie with a lady playing a fallen star, let her by all means be an ornery, slightly conceited falling star. A trio of witches also notes Yvaine's fall; the cruelest of them, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), is chosen to find this star and retrieve her heart for the use of magic spells, especially the spell that produces the illusion of youth.

Meanwhile, in his tower, the king of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole), a rasping old sinner on his deathbed, is retelling his life's story to his children. He got to be king through the traditional fashion: he murdered all of his brothers. And his majesty is amused to watch his many sons carrying on the royal tradition. The seventh son, Septimus (Mark Strong), is clearly the most murderous of them all. And then he, too, must seek out Yvaine.

The quest begins in all directions, with Tristan and the gradually sweetening Yvaine crossing the green countryside. The two are given a lift by sky pirates, dirigible-carried lightning harvesters in sou'westers, goggles and rubber boots who collect electricity in wooden barrels. Their leader is Capt. Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), a brigand with a thick Chicago dialect, and this part looks very much like the most fun DeNiro has ever had as an actor, far more so than in those potboiling Meet the Parents flicks. Has he ever gotten to be a swashbuckler before?

Stardust has Harry Potter syndrome; the central young man is less interesting than the wilder actors in motion around him. And the final sorcerer's battle, with its neon-colored bolts flying CGI glass shards, very much resembles the most recent Potter film. Still, Stardust's invention, its matter-of-fact tone about the world of enchantment, hardly fails to delight. I never knew how much I missed having Michelle Pfeiffer around until I saw her up to extravagant no-goodness casting her spells, changing a yokel boy into a girl or turning a goat into a bartender. Throughout Stardust, the magic is almost always macabre and dark. The adult-style pleasures shouldn't be too much for older children. Even in the realm of fantasy, children should always have something a little beyond their reach to reach for.


Movie Times Stardust (PG-13; 130 min.), directed by Matthew Vaughn, written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, photographed by Ben Davis and starring Charlie Cox and Claire Danes, opens Aug. 10.


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