Everything but the enchanted kitchen sink shows up in the sprawling fairy tale “Stardust,” including evil witches, airborne pirate ships, double-parked unicorns and Robert De Niro as a cross-dressing sea captain. Sprinkled with tongue-in-cheek humor, fairly adult jokes and some well-known faces acting very silly, this adventure story should have particular appeal to fans of “The Princess Bride,” but in any event will never be mistaken for a strictly-for-kids movie.
One of the opening scenes (there are several) involves the dubious conception of our hero, Tristan Thorne (Charlie Cox) — the collaborative effort of a witch’s slave (Kate Magowan) and Tristan’s wall-jumping father (Ben Barnes). They live in Wall, which separates England from the supernatural kingdom of Stormhold. There, a battle for succession to the throne of the ailing king (Peter O’Toole) rages among seven princes, only three of whom are left alive as the story begins.
There’s a lot going on — at times, perhaps too much — in “Stardust,” which is based on the novel written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess. The royal rivalries are raging; the dead princes, who appear in black-and-white, are a hilarious Greek chorus, providing play-by-play on the homicidal antics of their surviving brothers. Meanwhile, the young, inept Tristan is wooing the fair Victoria (Sienna Miller) by telling her he’ll bring her the fallen star they’ve seen pass over their heads. Then there’s Yvaine (Claire Danes), who is the fallen star.
And then there’s Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), the evil witch who wants to cut out Yvaine’s still-beating heart and eat it with her horrid sisters so they can prolong their already unnatural youth. The best thing in the film, Pfeiffer shows great comedic timing, and her metamorphoses — as Lamia careens from flourishing beauty to horrible crone — show considerable courage, as the actress manages to be funny regardless of what state of decrepitude she’s in. It’s not a very admirable character, after all: Lamia turns people into goats and goats into people, and she and her sisters foretell the future by hacking up animals and reading their entrails. They’re not the most in-demand dinner guests.
Pic saves itself through a lot of incidental humor. Pfeiffer delivers elaborate, well-timed eye-rolls when things like eternal youth don’t go her way. De Niro, whose Capt. Shakespeare is so swishy it’s amazing he doesn’t go overboard (although he does, in a sense), does a “Can-Can” fan dance that, in terms of incongruous collisions of actor and role, is equal to De Niro’s performance of “I Feel Pretty” in “Analyze That.” The act doesn’t have much to do with the “Stardust” story, but it’s as engrossing as a car crash.
Typical for a fantasy with love at the center, the romance turns out to be the least interesting thing in the film. Tristan undergoes an extreme makeover over the course of the movie, moving improbably from Edwardian nerd to Byronic swashbuckler; the fit is never quite right. Danes is outright cranky as Yvaine, to the point where viewers may want to hand her over to Lamia.
But the sweep of the story and the humor keep things on something of an even keel. Production values are good, with the more obvious computer-manipulated moments not really distracting from the whole, as the story and the characters are generally cartwheeling around reality anyway.