When a falling star lands nearby his English home of Wall, Tristan (Charlie Cox) promises his crush (Sienna Miller) that he'll retrieve the heavenly rock as her birthday present. Crossing a magical border into the land of fantasy, Tristan meets the star, Yvaine (Claire Danes), and the two set off to return her to the sky. Hot on their trail is the witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), closeted gay pirate Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), and a trio of royal brothers who need the necklace Yvaine is wearing to rule the land.
With the source material written by fantasy brass ring Neil Gaiman, criticizing "Stardust" is like throwing a polka party at Arlington National Cemetery. I understand the concept of Gaiman's rabid popularity, but the way director Matthew Vaughn treats this fantasy world, it's challenging to find what was so enchanting about the original novel in the first place.
Vaughn is so desperate to sell the fantastical nature of the story that he pounds the life right out of it by stacking the visual clutter high. "Stardust" should be a character-driven film, but Vaughn's sees it as an expensive visual effects demo reel, never allowing the film a chance to breathe before it's off on another chase through this enchanted land of witches, unicorns, well-dressed stars, and deflated Pythonesque attempts at wit. If you're suffering from deja vu, be safe in the knowledge that I'm with you, and can see the production inching itself toward the "Princess Bride" with every new sequence of winky fairy tale shenanigans. Only, instead of Rodents of Unusual Size, "Stardust" has Robert De Niro prancing around in a corset and pink feather boa, officially forfeiting his "world's greatest actor" title.
It might seem impossible to resist the storybook leanings of "Stardust," but Vaughn makes the task painless. With a bracing score by Ilan Eshkeri drowning every moment in triumphant horns, there's little for the audience to get excited about since all joyous heavy lifting has already been accomplished. The film's promise of peril is also thrown out the window; Vaughn continually follows a bit of ultraviolence with a cheerless squeak of comedy, as if to apologize for all the throat-slittings, stabbings, and general bits of brutality (parents, heed that PG-13 rating).
I also felt distance from any magic by the picture's selfish need for laughs. "Stardust" has a sizable pot of fantasy brewing, but watching actors like De Niro go larger than life as the pirate queen, or suffering through Ricky Gervais doing the "Ricky Gervais Show" in the middle of all the supposed wonder is disheartening to say the least. Vaughn is terrified to let the material soar, instead keeping it chained to neutral for greatest control. "Stardust" has the appearance of being something more dynamic than the feature film reflects, and that's a frustration the picture cannot seem to shake.
Thankfully, some of these actors are able to transcend the material with sharp performances. I enjoyed the way Pfeiffer tempered her urge to camp up her work as the alpha witch. Tending to the ravages of aging and overall irritability, the actress makes for a grand villain. Better are Claire Danes and Charlie Cox as the (literally) star-crossed lovers, though that special smooch of romance isn't layered into the film by Vaughn gracefully. Tristan and Yvaine are more shoved together as a romantic pairing than an organic intertwining of hearts, but the actors make their roles sparkle (again, literally) the best they can.
"Stardust" certainly strains very hard to entertain, but in unbearable directions I found intolerable to follow. Fantasy shouldn't have to drill this aggressively to strike a wellspring of amazement.