Panic Groom: Stardust?s Cox is engaged with protecting Danes.
Panic Groom: Stardust?s Cox is engaged with protecting Danes.

Stardust’s plot is as crammed as Interview’s is minimal. The PG-13 fairy tale, directed and co-written by Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn, is very Princess Bride in its tongue-in-cheek telling of swashbucklers and enchanted lands. There’s no doubt, though, that audiences of all ages—the movie’s intended demographic isn’t exactly clear—will instantly compare it to the more recent adventures of a certain beloved boy wizard.

Both share obvious elements: witches, magic, good vs. evil, the idea that mugg…regular people live in one realm, largely unaware of the magical world that exists under their unbewitched noses. Stardust takes place in Wall, an area between England and the supernatural kingdom of Stormhold. Now, try to keep up with me: Stormhold’s king (Peter O’Toole) is dying and is expected to name one of his three sons successor. The king is proud that he murdered his own brothers to obtain his crown, though, so he encourages his spawn to do the same. But the successor doesn’t only have to be the last one standing; the king has taken a ruby pendant, drained it of its color, and thrown it out into the sky (with great whooshes, light, and general fanfare). The new king must find the pendant and restore its color to win the crown.

Meanwhile, in Wall, a young, motherless peasant named Tristan (Charlie Cox) is trying to woo the beautiful and popular Victoria (Sienna Miller again). She pretty much laughs at him, but when they spot a shooting star (accompanied by great whooshes, light, and general fanfare), she agrees to marry him if he finds the star and brings it to her within a week. This means crossing into Stormhold, which normal folk aren’t allowed to do, though Tristan’s father once managed to bypass the guard and create a little magic himself there some 18 years back. The “star” is actually the ruby, which is actually a woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes doing a Gwyneth Paltrow impersonation in terms of both looks and awkward British accent). Also after Yvaine is Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), an evil, aged witch who needs the star’s heart so she and her equally hideous sisters can be young again. Lamia turns back the clock temporarily in order to go undercover in her hunt, though she ages whenever she uses magic (whooshes, light, fanfare).

This tangled web has been extracted from a mere 250-page novel by Neil Gaiman, which underscores the big difference between Stardust and any of the Potter films: Whereas the latter movies have been whittled from books many times that size, their stories have been at once smarter and easier to digest. (Then again, this isn’t much of a surprise coming from Vaughn, whose Layer Cake was also visually impressive if narratively cloudy.) Still, Stardust has its, uh, charms. Its humor, though sometimes forced, is smile- if not guffaw-inducing, with highlights that include a ghostly Greek chorus of the king’s dead sons and a typically droll cameo by Ricky Gervais as a fence. (Less successful—OK, just plain weird—is Robert De Niro’s turn as the “wopsie” captain of a flying pirate ship. The term will define itself as soon as the captain, er, opens his closet.)

Out of the all-star cast, Pfeiffer is the ace here. Fresh off her somewhat limited role as a ruthless stage mom in Hairspray, she’s allowed to run away with this movie, taking cackling glee in her character’s witchy schemes and gamely stealing the spotlight even when Lamia is increasingly resembling the crypt keeper. The love story itself—naturally, the affair that began the story isn’t the one that concludes it—exists merely as an excuse for lots of special effects (though some are cheesy) and scheming (much more satisfying). Still, once you’re more at home with the basic plot and can relax as it unfolds, Stardust ends up being a lovely little fairy tale—it may even fulfill the jonesing that the Summer of Harry has no doubt left in its wake.