Review: 'Stardust' lacks depth, but it’s still swell

Pirates, witches, ghosts, goblins, evil princes, a unicorn, a love story and a freak celestial accident, among other fairy-tale ingredients, add up to a rollicking, shallow good time in “Stardust,” a kitchen-sink adventure whose vibrant personality makes up for a lack of deeper punch.

The source material is Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’ graphic novel, and the director and cowriter (with Jane Goldman) is former gritty-indie filmmaker Matthew Vaughn. While unversed in enchanted-kingdom spectacles such as this one, Vaughn, as with his impressive “Layer Cake,” displays notable regard for character and predicament. This quality befits this ambitious fantasy, which serves up players and perils abundantly.

Set in long-ago England, the adult-geared story centers on a fallen star, knocked out of the heavens by a dying king (Peter O’Toole). The star assumes the earthly form of a cranky young woman called Yvaine (Claire Danes).

Tristan (Charlie Cox), a humble village lad, sets out to kidnap the star and give it as a gift to the snooty girl he adores (Sienna Miller). But when evil forces — the king’s throne-seeking sons (Jason Flemyng, Mark Strong), who need Yvaine’s pendant, and a vain old witch (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wants Yvaine’s heart — pursue her, Tristan and Yvaine unite to protect her and vanquish the baddies.

En route to the showdown — a boisterous mix of swashbuckling and sorcery — the pair spend time with a deceptively macho pirate captain (Robert De Niro) and fall in love.

Basically, this is a big sprawling fairy tale that likely lost nuance in its screen translation. The story is thin. The dialogue can get trite. The protagonists need more dimension.

But by remaining seriously fixed on his characters amid the potentially overwhelming visual dazzle, and by delivering aconstant zest and vim between the uninspiring plot points, Vaughn keeps you caring and smiling. His picture’s cluttered, sloppy even, but lots of winning elements emerge. A colorful black-marketeer (Ricky Gervais) and a recurring cluster of dead princes, who act as a Greek chorus, are particularly entertaining examples of such spark.

The cast, with the exception of the bland Cox, dynamically enhances the fun. In the role of the fallen star, Danes provides essential radiance. Pfeiffer and De Niro are glorious in their hamminess.

Challenging it isn’t, but for a two-hour popcorn escape in this most boring month on the calendar, “Stardust” is pretty bright stuff.

Stardust ***

Starring Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro

Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Rated PG-13

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

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