Not being a big fan of fantasy, I was prepared not to like "Stardust," which is now on video. This is a love story/quest flick solidly ensconced in a realm of fantasy that lies just beyond the wall. In fact, the main character, Tristan (Charlie Cox) has to venture beyond his little English town of Wall (and through an actual wall guarded by a 97-year old watchman who seems to know martial arts) to "become a man." Tristan wants to (literally) catch a falling star, but initially so that he can give it as a birthday present to the vain young woman (Siena Miller) who scorns him. His adventures out and back and out again constitute the film's plot.

But the action alone doesn't begin to capture the film's appeal. That springs from a wonderful, witty screenplay and a tightly shot and edited film. Director/producer Matthew Vaughn, along with co-writer Jane Goldman, has adapted Neil Gaiman's graphic novel nicely for the screen, keeping the special effects in the service of the story"”a feat not entirely common in this genre. A variety of stars"”Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert DeNiro, Claire Danes, and the apparently immortal Peter O'Toole"”get to strut their stuff in roles large and small. (DeNiro's strutting wins my personal prize for best playing against type.) At just over two hours, the movie stays relatively lean and plays fast, never taking itself too seriously. It has justly been compared to "The Princess Bride," a cult film itself, but "Stardust's" pacing and clarity are superior.

In one sense, it's a long chase flick, with as many as four separate groups all looking for the same thing"”the falling star"”but for different reasons. Tristan wants it for the object of his desire; a wicked, 200-year old witch (Pfeiffer) wants it as a fountain of youth; Prince Septimus (Mark Strong) must have it to become king. But the star is actually a lovely, wise/innocent, young/old woman, Yvaine (Danes) who has been watching the earth from her stellar perch for centuries and believes that only love can redeem the hopeless, vicious mess that is humanity.

Naturally, she and Tristan fall in love as they evade the others, seeking the aid of sundry colorful characters to reach their goal, adding another twist to an already convoluted plot. They include an unscrupulous fence (Ricky Gervais), a lower-echelon witch (Melanie Hill), and Captain Shakespeare (DeNiro) and his questionable but loyal crew of lightning-catching pirates. These entertaining types"”as well as Septimus's dead brethren, who comment on the action-- keep both the lovers and the audience guessing, the plot turning as various enchantments pile one on another. And Gavin Bocquet's production design, thick with detail, pleases the eye on those rare moments when the action or the humor flags.

"Stardust" is rated "PG-13" for "fantasy violence and some risqu humor"; I don't think there's anything to endanger the morals of youth here, though. And parents should watch along with the kids because they'll catch much of the humor that will sail over the heads of preteens. Don't let your assumptions about fantasy keep you from renting and enjoying this holiday treat.


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