"Stardust" has its moments, most of them plot-unrelated. The highlight is a patter routine wherein Robert De Niro, as a cross-dressing pirate, haggles over the price of some fenced goods with a disreputable fellow played by Ricky Gervais. The way these two negotiate back and forth it's like Faerie Kingdom vaudeville, a distant cousin to the Billy Crystal and Carol Kane routines in "The Princess Bride."
Struggling to get out from underneath Daryl Hannah's "Splash" hair, Claire Danes takes top billing as the star woman, Yvaine, whose earthly fate is one of many plot strands in a narrative that had an easier time of it on the page. Danes is an excellent actress, and something of a star herself. (If the film version of "Shopgirl" were any better, her performance would've been widely recognized for what it was: a moving embodiment of dashed and then fulfilled hopes in a romantically diminished era.) But this is not an especially interesting interstellar role, and Danes struggles to make this diva who fell to Earth memorable.
The cast of "Stardust" is indeed a starry one, with Peter O'Toole allowed a few seconds of screen time as the dying king (nothing compared to what he does, with voice alone, in "Ratatouille") and Rupert Everett playing one of his patented fatuous Prince Charming types, this one a ghost. To mixed results, the screen adaptation amps up the roles played by De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. The latter swans around in thick hag makeup, when she's not appearing as her suspiciously ageless middle-aged self. She's not bad, but Pfeiffer rarely surprises you with a line reading; nothing ever gets tossed off or sped up or delivered with a little topspin. Directed and co-adapted (with Jane Goldman) by Matthew Vaughn, "Stardust" piles on the conflict and the bombast. It invents a showdown between Tristan and Lamia the evil sorceress (Pfeiffer) that goes on and on and on. The scene depicting De Niro's closeted pirate mincing around to Offenbach's famous "Orpheus" cancan goes on as well, and it makes you wonder if some things simply weren't meant to be.
Author Gaiman has acknowledged the influence of C.S. Lewis and the "Narnia" books, and at the center of "Stardust" lies the tantalizing notion of what lies beyond everyday experience. Such notions of parallel-universe magic have to be worked out visually, in ways that cannot be left entirely to the digital effects teams. While Vaughn's gangster film "Layer Cake" had some force and stylish meanness going for it, as well as a good performance from Daniel Craig, judging from "Stardust" the director is a rather heavy-handed fantasist.
You end up clinging to the little payoffs, such as De Niro's encounter with Gervais, or the sight of Mark Williams' innkeeper, recently transformed into a goat and gnawing on a towel, or Kate Magowan's vibrant, too-brief appearance as the mysterious slave girl in the Faerie Market. It's the big stuff that doesn't really work, at least well enough to be called special.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn; screenplay by Jane Goldman and Vaughn, based on the illustrated novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess; photographed by Ben Davis; edited by Jon Harris; music by Ilan Eshkeri; production design by Gavin Bocquet; produced by Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, Michael Dreyer, Gaiman and Vaughn. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:05. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for fantasy violence and some risque humor)
Yvaine - Claire Danes
Lamia - Michelle Pfeiffer
Capt. Shakespeare - Robert De Niro
Tristan - Charlie Cox
Victoria - Sienna Miller
Ferdy - Ricky Gervais