At first startled glance, an all-star fairy tale set in a magical alt-world of witches, ghosts and pirates wouldn’t seem the obvious successor to Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Layer Cake. Having produced the former and directed the latter, however, Brit director Matthew Vaughn clearly wanted a change from his usual milieu of Mockney crims and designer violence. As much as you welcome his decision to spread his wings, though, his adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 1998 illustrated novel strays close in places to being a failure – albeit an honourable one that’s sure to woo a small but staunch audience (the sort who lapped up earlier Gaiman adap MirrorMask).
Ultimately, it’s a question of tone, Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman (that’s Mrs Jonathan Ross to you) not always nailing the right balance between unequivocal fantasy and waggish self-parody. One moment we’re emotionally invested in the quest of lovesick pup Tristan (Charlie Cox) as he travels to the mythical realm of Stormhold to find a fallen star (Claire Danes, giving it feisty) he hopes will win him the heart of village bike Victoria (Sienna Miller). The next we’re having a knowing chuckle at cameos from the likes of Ricky Gervais (mugging like mad as a wily goods trader) and Robert De Niro (a pirate captain with a big secret in his closet), whose contributions undercut storybook stereotypes with Shrek-like irony.
Yet with Vaughn and Goldman getting so busy with backstory, it takes a crammed two hours plus change to tie up the many dangling plot threads. Not that you can fault Michelle Pfeiffer’s lip-smacking turn as the decrepit, hideously wrinkled witch Lamia desperate to shore up her disintegrating beauty by any means necessary, while the ghoulish chorus of dead princes played by Jason Flemyng, Rupert Everett, Adam Buxton, David Walliams and others is a terrifically witty touch.
Overall, there’s the sense that Stardust’s uncertain whether it’s straightforward whimsy for thrill-chasing romantics or a pricey in-joke for Brit-flick literates. Cloudy skies, then – but you can still see some sparkle.