To Catch a Fallen Star

The lightest of summer fare, Stardust glimmers with a frothy mixture of fantasy and fun.

The summer fairy-tale film Stardust begins in a town intent on keeping its citizens at home. But for a sleepy little village named for its prominent protection from the outside world, Wall does a surprisingly slipshod job of making sure the members of the Thorn family stay put. First, curious young Dunstan (Ben Barnes) tricks his way past the little old man charged with guarding the wall's one serious gap. The other side, he soon finds out, is not simply more of merry old England; it's an enchanted kingdom called Stormhold, a place of magic and wonder and saucy princesses imprisoned as supernatural shopgirls who are willing to kiss and sell (and then some).

Dunstan soon returns home, his otherworldly adventure just a memory ' until nine months later, a baby shows up at the wall in a basket. A sort of delayed souvenir of his brief time abroad, and the continuation of the Thorn bloodline, as well as of some unknown, but never forgotten, Stormhold slave girl (Kate Magowan).

In short order, the baby grows into a young boy, Tristan (Charlie Cox), a sweet-natured bumbler who works in the local dry goods shop and nurses a deep crush on Victoria (Sienna Miller). As fair of face as she is selfish of heart, Victoria strings Tristan along, getting him to do her favors and accepting his attentions when it suits her. One night, the two see a star fall somewhere in the great beyond, and she promises to marry Tristan if he will but retrieve the star and present it to her by her birthday, a mere week's time. At the same time, Dunstan (played as an adult by Nathaniel Parker) discloses the truth of Tristan's origins. And so, just like that, another Thorn boy breaches Wall, searching for his star and finding his own Stormhold adventure.

Adapted from the book of the same name by fantasy author and graphic-novel scribe Neil Gaiman, Stardust is the story of what happens when Tristan crosses the wall. The star he seeks is no remnant of galactic rock, but an out-of-sorts maiden named Yvaine (Claire Danes), knocked from her orbit by a necklace magically rocketed into the night sky by the dying king of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole). Three sets of seekers want Yvaine ' Tristan, to win Victoria's hand by presenting Yvaine to her; the princes of Stormhold, foremost among them Septimus (Mark Strong), to win the right of succession by retrieving the necklace she now wears; and the evil witch queen Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), to win back her youth and beauty by killing her. In Stormhold, star's hearts grant eternal youth and immortality.

All three twists of this tale merge and fly fluidly and constantly, as the cast of players aid and obstruct each other, sometimes knowingly, more often unknowingly, always with a high sense of adventure and effervescence. Black-magic candles that bend the space-time continuum, pirates that capture lightning and sell it on the open market, goats turned into men and men turned into bar wenches ' Tristan and Yvaine encounter them all along their perilous way back to Wall.

Screenwriter Jane Goldman and Stardust director Matthew Vaughan (Layer Cake) adapted Gaiman's tale for the screen, putting together a diverting summer film of light-as-air wit and sometimes-subtle humor. This is a fairy tale with unexpectedly grown-up touches; animals are routinely eviscerated by Lamia and her sisters for entrail readings, Robert DeNiro shows up as a pirate with a surprising secret, and there is sex in this story. But Stardust is still a fairy tale, and if the vague outlines of the happy ending begin to show early on, it's forgivable because of the inventive touches spread liberally throughout the story.

The ghosts of Septimus' dead brothers (among them Rupert Everett) provide a kind of freak chorus to their brother's quest, lamenting his missteps and applauding his advances; each ghost's cartoonish appearance reflects the state in which he died ' ax to the head, face smashed from a fall, naked in the bath. What's left of Lamia's stolen beauty (Pfeiffer at her most stunning) begins to fade bit by bit as she uses magic to track Yvaine; she's soon reverting, liver spot by liver spot, back to a hairless, shriveled hag (Pfeiffer at her most deliciously desperate). And, late in the fun and games, a surreal sword fight, wonderfully staged and shot, is such a marriage of idea and execution that its antics would make Stardust absolutely worthwhile even if the rest of the film possessed considerably less of its other charms.

The temptation to compare Stardust to other adult-friendly fairy-tale fare such as the incomparable classic The Princess Bride and the refreshingly insolent Shrek is understandable. Stardust does share the same cinematic sky, although it doesn't shine as brightly and its impression won't last nearly as long. Fun performances, a sharp sense of humor and a sweet center, however, give Stardust just enough twinkle to catch the audience's eyes.