"Two and a half stars (PG-13)

Stardust, a fairy tale for grownups based on the acclaimed graphic novel written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, can’t decide whether it wants to be a relatively light, tongue-in-cheek feature like The Princess Bride or something darker and more twisted, like a Terry Gilliam fantasy. In the hands of director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake), the film lurches from scene to scene, shifting tones repeatedly as it juggles three storylines.

There are a number of effective moments in Stardust, some fanciful, some overtly comical, some serious. There are just as many that simply lay there, and one bit is downright embarrassing. The acting ranges from dandy to bland to annoying to what-the-hell-was-that? The landscapes — the movie was shot in Iceland and Scotland — are perfect for an otherworldly story. The score lays it on thick: The production would have been better served had the string section been shot with tranquilizer darts.

If early reviews are any indication, by the way, my tepid reaction to Stardust is in the minority. Of the five reviews currently posted on the Rotten Tomatoes Web site, four are raves and the fifth is solidly positive. So there you go.

The set-up: A star falls to Earth, where it takes the form of a crabby young woman called Yvaine, played by Claire Danes, who seems awfully cloddish for a magical spirit from the heavens.

Storyline One: Young Tristan (Charlie Cox ... yawn) has the hots for the comely Victoria (Sienna Miller). When they spot the falling star in the sky, he offers to prove his love by fetching it for her. Huh. Tristan eventually ends up escorting the reluctant Yvaine, who bitches at him a lot.

Storyline Two: From his deathbed, the King (Peter O’Toole) sends his sons in search of the star as a requirement to determine who gets the throne. The ruthless Secundus (Rupert Everett, who appears to be slowly turning into a hawk as he ages) leads the charge. Whenever one of the boys gets killed, his ghost continues to accompany the surviving princes, adding some amusing moments.

Storyline Three: Wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer, giving the best performance in the film) also wants Yvaine, so she and her vile sisters can eat her heart and regain their long lost youthful appearances.

Bonus Weirdness: Tristan and Yvaine encounter a Terry Gilliam-ish flying pirate ship and Captain Shakespeare, played by Robert De Niro in a performance that rivals his turn as Fearless Leader in Rocky and Bullwinkle for inducing cringes. Seems that the rough and tough captain is a cross-dressing queen in private. He bonds with the kids, dishing as he gives Tristan a makeover, then ends up dancing around in women’s underwear while holding gowns in front of himself, coming off like a frat boy performing a skit at a campus fund-raiser. The captain is presented sympathetically, but the dance scene makes him look like a joke. Jarring.

That’s it. Stardust tries to be lyrical and disarming and smart-ass and sincere as it jumps between storylines. Mostly, it feels disjointed and enervating, a frustrating near-miss.


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