Few are the great tongue-in-cheek fantasy movies. There’s something about swords and sorcery and good-versus-evil that makes filmmakers get solemn and operatic. Two notable exceptions are Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, a fairy tale sprinkled with vaudeville schtick, and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, with its Monty Python sensibility. Both are ideal movies for teens wavering between geeky earnestness and a desire to mock everything — and adults like them, too.
Stardust aspires to be that sort of cult movie. It has a leg up: The source material is a short novel by Neil Gaiman, who’s a cult unto himself. The Sandman author serves up his fantasies with heavy dollops of the droll and grotesque. Stardust is set in Victorian England in a village called Wall, whose eponymous landmark sports a gap that’s a portal to another world. Naturally, it’s one of those worlds where magic really works and kings have seven sons and, yes, there are unicorns. It’s also a world where princesses enjoy the occasional premarital roll in the hay, as we learn in a prologue that explains the haphazard conception of the movie’s hero, Tristran (Charlie Cox).
Trapped on the dull side of the wall, Tristran is a shop boy who yearns for more — specifically, he yearns for Victoria (Sienna Miller), a twiggy blonde who’s more interested in a guy with a sword. He tries to win this Victorian Mean Girl’s heart by offering her a fallen star, and so begins a quest that takes him over the wall into fairyland. But he’s not the only one chasing the star, which turns out to look less like a giant gaseous globe than like Claire Danes in a blonde wig and shiny nightgown. Much chasing, flying, shape-changing, spell-casting, flirting and camping it up ensue.
The camping it up is courtesy of Robert De Niro, who does a memorable turn as a sky pirate who flies a sailing ship suspended from a blimp and enjoys dressing in ruffles and dancing the cancan. Johnny Depp has made us love fey pirates, so why not an actual gay pirate? The performance is broad caricature, but it’s appropriate that De Niro should be the one who gives Tristran his makeover from drab lad to swashbuckler — like a steampunk version of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
Stardust tweaks the fairy-tale formula in some mild ways, but its basic elements are standard: the naïve but valiant hero, the steadfast heroine, the bickering princes, the wicked old witch who still wants to be the fairest of them all. At one point, the story seems headed for darker, more mature territory, as Tristran is torn between his growing affection for Danes and his old infatuation with Miller. But that tangent is short-lived.
Newcomer Cox is like Orlando Bloom with a personality. Michelle Pfeiffer is pungently nasty as the vain witch, whose aging dilemma seems suspiciously similar to that of certain Hollywood actresses. Danes, seldom convincing in period pieces, isn’t here either. (The part of the personified star calls for an actress with an otherworldly quality: Bryce Dallas Howard comes to mind.) Some of the funniest bits belong to British actors in small parts; watch for Ricky Gervais, creator of “The Office.”
The movie runs long, but the landscapes — filmed in the Scottish Highlands — are worth a good gaze. All in all, Stardust is a pleasant diversion. Whether it spawns a cult may depend on how many impressionable teens line up out there in multiplex-land, bored of the Pirates franchise and looking for a snappier twist on the “cute boys in breeches” formula.