Matthew Vaughn spins a throwback fantasy

Back when I was a teenager I must’ve watched The Princess Bride at least four times in the theater—and it wasn’t because I was a particularly huge fan of Mandy Patinkin. It was because chicks dug the flick. A palatable mix of humor, fantasy, action and romance, it was a throwback to unapologetically whimsical storytelling. You knew what was going to happen, and pretty much how it was going to happen, but you cared enough—were entertained enough—to get swept away in the feel-goodness that was bound to carry the tale of true love to its end.

Stardust will inevitably be compared to The Princess Bride. It contains all the same pieces—and then some—of the Bride puzzle, making it the first film worthy of the comparison since 1987. Director Matthew Vaughn’s creation (he made the excellent Layer Cake in 2004) is the perfect date movie: relentlessly fantastical, smart, sappy and fast-paced.

Even before the opening credits start rolling, the story (based on the book by Neil Gaiman) is densely creative. In a nutshell, there’s an old English town called Wall, which is surrounded by exactly that. Nobody is supposed to pass Wall’s wall into the neighboring magical world because it’s way too funky over there—witches, ruthless kings, sorcerers, airborne pirates and slutty slaves, including one who seduces the only man who’s dared travel over the wall. Here’s what’s cool: the movie isn’t about that guy, but rather his son, Tristran (Charlie Cox), the one who was left on his father’s doorstep as a baby, and is now 18 years old. The boy has no idea who his mother is or that his destiny lies on the other side of the wall—he’s simply interested in bedding Sienna Miller, the town hottie. That’s when Tristran sees a falling star (which we later learn is the curiously entrancing Claire Danes) and pledges to retrieve it for Miller as a demonstration of his love. The boy’s travels open up the rabbit hole that is the rest of the movie—a wild chase of a chase of a chase through a mystical land populated with mostly cheeky characters.

It’s the characters who make the film. Michelle Pfeiffer chews up the screen as a cunning witch; Cox and Danes are enchanting; and the many cameos, including a funny bit from Ricky Gervais, keep the audience on its toes. The only false note, surprisingly, comes from Robert De Niro as an effeminate buccaneer, a cheap cliché in an otherwise imaginative cast.

But Stardust never really stops to let any one person drag it down. Much like The Princess Bride, Stardust is determined to entertain, wow and swoon to the point that fighting its spell is futile.
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