The big-screen film adaptation of Stardust, a graphic-novel-turned-full-length-novel written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, seems to aspire to be this decade's The Princess Bride: a lively, jovial fantasy that's smart and slick enough to appeal even to people with a knee-jerk loathing for the genre. Instead, it comes across more as this decade's Time Bandits: an exciting but ramshackle concoction with a lot of memorable setpieces that seem a little strained. Under the weight of celebrity cameos, ridiculously pompous narration (by Ian McKellen), and big-budget special-effects, the quiet particulars of Gaiman's tight, sweet little fairy tale sometimes seem lost, but at least everyone seems to be having a really excellent time.
Charlie Cox stars as a provincial geek smitten with a local girl; she has her eyes on an effete lunk, but she's flattered when Cox claims he'd do anything for her, even fetch her a star that's fallen on the other side of their village's border with Faerie. So she gives him a few days to make good on his rash promise, and off he heads into a bright fantasy world full of spells, shape-changers, evil witches (led by an alternately beauteous and bedraggled Michelle Pfeiffer), conniving princes trying to kill each other off and succeed Peter O'Toole as king, and a living fallen star played by Claire Danes. Director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) and his co-writer Jane Goldman stick to the framework of Gaiman's story, though they rewrite the beginning into a plodding exploration of Cox's relationship with his father, belabor the dialogue with reams of exposition, and tack on a half-hour climactic combat that owes a lot of its sloppy pacing and stage-by-stage special-effects toppers to Terry Gilliam. The anarchic tone and sprawling, no-hurry attitude lets a lot of scenes, characters, and fights linger onscreen far too long, making the whole project feel bloated and overextended.
Still, the film's merry, enthusiastic tone—set largely by Robert De Niro, playing a giddy transvestite sky-pirate to the hilt—is hard to beat. The effects are terrific, and Gaiman's story is full of enough unexpected turns to buoy the story along. As with so many Gilliam films, a stern editor with a sense of dramatic timing could have given this film more tension to go with its random bursts of comedy and big, happy fantasy setpieces, but lacking tautness, it'll have to settle for expansive joy.