FLOATING in on an airy breeze of dreams and true love, the lively adventure-romance "Stardust" offers that elusive quality summer movies are supposed to possess but rarely do -- total escape.
The fantastical story of an ordinary shop boy's quest to prove his love takes us on a journey into a magical kingdom of conspiring witches, murderous princes, flying pirates and a fallen star. Sophisticated in its execution, it is a movie that possesses a child's whimsical sense of wonder that propels the action, coupled with an adult sensibility that gives it emotional heft.
In craftily melding these disparate elements, director Matthew Vaughn delivers a worthy follow-up to his stylish feature debut, "Layer Cake," ably moving from that film's neo-gangster environs to the bigger-budgeted fairy tale world of "Stardust." The screenplay by Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman is an adaptation of the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and follows in the spirit of "The Princess Bride," gently spoofing the rules of enchantment while simultaneously embracing them.
While it lacks the earlier film's flashy comedy and quotable dialogue, "Stardust" possesses enough wit and bravado to make it perfectly charming. Its protagonist, Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox), lives with his father in the small English village of Wall, named for the cobblestone barrier that skirts it. Beyond the wall lies both Tristan's origins and destiny, and a falling star offers him a chance to win the heart of the haughty Victoria (Sienna Miller), the prettiest girl in the village.
Upon learning of his unusual provenance, Tristan soon finds himself transported to the supernatural world of Stormhold, the enchanted land on the other side of the wall. In the crater where the star landed, he discovers a beautiful young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes), who, in fact, is the human incarnation of the star. Tristan intends to take Yvaine back to Victoria to prove the depth of his love but must first navigate the treacherous byways of the fantasy kingdom.
That doesn't prove easy, as certain members of Stormhold's citizenry are also interested in Yvaine. Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her witch sisters want the star for her eternal life-giving properties -- which can only be purloined by possessing her still-beating heart. The surviving sons of the dying king (Peter O'Toole) want to regain the gem their father launched into the stratosphere sending Yvaine plummeting to Earth, a gem still in her possession. It is the final piece of a rather bloodthirsty succession ritual that leads Prince Septimus (Mark Strong) and his brothers to kill one another off until the last survivor ascends the throne. As they are dispatched, the slaughtered princes provide a Greek chorus to the story, stuck in limbo until a new king is crowned.
Vaughn keeps the action fast-paced, cutting back and forth between the various factions as they bear down on Yvaine. Scottish and Icelandic locations provide Stormhold with sweeping vistas that allow for sprawling chase scenes and a sense of the epic. The director also has some fun with the swashbuckling derring-do as our neophyte hero, Tristan, gets expert tutelage and a makeover from the colorful captain (Robert De Niro in a role that toys with his usual gruff persona) of a dirigible pirate ship.
Yvaine is an initially churlish presence and Tristan is so preoccupied with his Victoria that their growing attraction to one another sneaks up on them. Similarly, Danes and Cox take a bit of time to warm to one another but eventually create enough of a spark to make the yarn work.
Pfeiffer is terrific as the diabolical Lamia, whose centuries-old visage is showing its years, and Strong, as Prince Septimus, balances her black magic with equally evil ambition. Ian McKellen's narration establishes the storybook tone, and amusing cameos by David Kelly ("Waking Ned"), Rupert Everett and Ricky Gervais help keep the movie's tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Often as dark and brutal as a tale by the Brothers Grimm, "Stardust" is decidedly not for young children. There's an adult sensibility to the romance and the fight scenes are fairly violent. Still, with its heart worn proudly on its sleeve, it's one of the best date movies of the year, a compatibility litmus test for starry-eyed romantics.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for fantasy violence and some risque humor. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes. In general release.