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'Stardust' will one day be considered a classic, thanks to charm, humor and fantastic performances

Stardust, director Matthew Vaughn's enchanting fairy tale/comedy based upon the novel by Neil Gaiman, will undoubtedly draw a lot of comparisons to the classic The Princess Bride.

Those comparisons are much deserved. A summer that started slow continues to gain steam with this, a fantasy adventure that provides wonderment, laugh-out-loud moments and terrific star turns from Michelle Pfeiffer, Charlie Cox and a hilariously campy Robert De Niro.

Tristan (Cox), in love with Victoria (Sienna Miller), vows to retrieve a star the two have witnessed falling to Earth. If he gets the star, he will win Victoria's hand in marriage. In order to reach the star, he must cross a wall into the kingdom of Stormhold, which is inhabited by witches and brothers fighting for the right to succeed the king (Peter O'Toole).

When Tristan reaches the crater, he discovers the star--in human form. Her name is Yvaine (Claire Danes), and her presence on Earth has caught the attention of a witch coven led by Lamia (Pfeiffer, getting another chance to play bad after Hairspray). Lamia wants to cut out the star's heart in order to restore her own youth, which would certainly qualify as an interruption in Tristan's marital plans.

As Tristan and Yvaine journey back to Victoria, trying to evade the witch, they encounter a strange pirate ship in the sky, led by the deceptively nasty Captain Shakespeare (De Niro). He manhandles the two on deck, but he's a softy behind closed doors. Shakespeare has a secret--he likes to dance the cancan in fluffy clothes--and he's very concerned about maintaining a rugged image with his crew. De Niro takes his bizarre, goofy character to great heights; it's his funniest role since Meet the Parents.

The real star of the film is Pfeiffer, who allows herself to look pretty damn awful in the movie. Her character is hundreds of years old, but she is able to restore her youth momentarily as she sets out on her quest for the fallen star. The more she uses her powers, the more she falls apart. Pfeiffer plays her character's physical deterioration as comedy rather than horror; huge credit should go to the makeup staff that managed to make one of the world's most beautiful women quite disgusting.

While Danes can be a charmer, her first scene with Tristan features a bit too much mugging, and her accent is hard to handle at first. Her work gets better as the film progresses, although her stumbling opening moments had me worried. Cox, who transforms from a nerdy, love-struck pansy into a swashbuckler, gives the movie its true heart. While Miller's role is small, she delights in her few screen moments.

Like The Princess Bride, Stardust manages to mix modern humor into a fairy-tale setting. The subplot involving brothers killing off each other in an attempt to grab their father's throne is the film's best running joke. The dead brothers, Rupert Everett among them, observe the goings-on as black-and-white ghosts, deformed in the manner in which they were killed (squashed faces, slashed throats, etc.). It's this sort of dark humor that makes the movie more suitable for adults rather than the kiddies.

This is only the second film from director Vaughn, who made his debut with the enjoyable Layer Cake. The summer has had some nice surprises, and Stardust qualifies as a big one. I knew little about it before I attended a screening, and I walked out happy as heck that I had seen it. While the latest Harry Potter was a lot of fun, Stardust qualifies as the summer's best fantasy adventure. It will be making people happy for many years to come.

Stardust
Rated NR

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