Whilst it avoids many of the trappings that post-Rings fantasy duds like "Eragon" and "Brothers Grimm" have made, the film version of Neil Gaiman's graphic novel "Stardust" still lacks that extra bit of magic to push it into the "Princess Bride" territory it so obviously wants to join.
Still, that doesn't take away from what it is - a deftly enjoyable bit of light romantic fantasy with all the usual hallmarks of dashing heroes, evil witches, mystical beasts, jinxes, offbeat comedy, and a blossoming love affair. In a genre so dominated by films aimed at young males, it's refreshing to see such an unabashedly 'girlie' effort that comes complete with Robert DeNiro as a camp cross-dressing sky pirate.
Make no mistake though, it's not a kiddie movie either. Whilst the PG-13 ratings makes it safe for teens and above, there's some darker elements here that - like in all the original fairy tales - includes murder, sinister characters who pose credible threats of harm, and some adult-skewing humor that'll go over most kids heads. It's never graphic in any way, but it is enough to make its point.
Helping that is its unabashed belief in the reality of this world. Despite an obvious lack of a 'Rings' style budget, the production design, costumes, location filming in Iceland and Scotland, and effects quite effectively recreate the book and turn Stormhold into a physical and believable universe. There's no self-referential winks or questions of its existence - it's a steadfastly old-fashioned but gentile feature that simply asks its audience to go with it.
A tempting offer too considering the cast. Armed with a pretty decent English accent, Claire Danes enjoys herself in the role of the fallen star - combining that sense of naivety and old soul emotion quite effectively. Male lead Charlie Cox, mostly remembered as the secondary lead in 2005's half-decent "Casanova" comedy, is a somewhat bland but suitable choice for the role of Tristan and certainly carries himself better than quite a few young male leads his age who get parts these days.
Michelle Pfeiffer, still utterly gorgeous at 49, plays against type as a very vain witch intent on cutting out Danes' heart. It's a fun role with a touch of menace and she brings both aspects to her part quite well. Robert De Niro steals the show as the aforementioned pirate Captain Shakespeare. The middle act features the pair's encounter with the very fey character which the actor seems to just relish playing. It's a fun segment that, whilst not feeling out of place, doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the film.
Unfortunately that's not the only stumble "Stardust" makes. At two hours the film is long and the pacing does falter at times. With multiple storylines going on, some such as the dead princes or Tristan's family connections with this world, get the short shrift. Other elements, such as the comedy, often fall flat - notably Ricky Gervais making a cameo as a shady salesman that nearly puts the entire film into a coma.
Director Matthew Vaughn, best known for the superb British gangster thriller "Layer Cake" with Daniel Craig, tackles this entirely different genre with aplomb. There's a strong sense of both visual wonder, energy and skill in the direction which balances an obvious steadfast desire to be loyal to the source material with a more lightheartedly casual sense of filmmaking. It's a very tricky tightrope to walk, and more than once the film stumbles trying to balance everything, but overall he gets there to the end quite admirably. Not the brightest star in the sky, but "Stardust" shines nonetheless.