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In the fantasy-adventure Stardust, an airborne pirate barge soars through the sky, fishing for violent surges of electricity. With its nets cast wide through the storm clouds, the crew makes it look like catching lightning is easy certainly easier than capturing the elusive magic of a fairy tale.
Like many tellers of would-be-timeless tales, the creators of Stardust graphic novelist Neil Gaiman and adapting screenwriter Jane Goldman understand the tropes. Like everyone from Sir Thomas Malory to George Lucas and J.K. Rowling, they revisit archetypal hero mythology with a zeal that would have Joseph Campbell giggling in his grave. But if it were as simple as following a recipe, there wouldn't be so many limp examples of the genre. And Stardust can't quite shake the sense that it was built with more calculation than inspiration.
The basic setup, starting 150 years ago, is certainly familiar. In a prologue narrated by Ian McKellen, in his most resonant Gandalf-ian tones, we learn of a magical world called Stormhold, separated from the middle of England only by a stone wall. One young man manages to sneak through for a small adventure, only to have the infant result of said small adventure dropped on his doorstep nine months later.
Flash-forward 18 years, and Tristan (Charlie Cox) that baby all grown up is a restless lad pining for a seemingly inaccessible girl (Sienna Miller). Only after his father tells him that his mother is from the other side of the wall does Tristan begin a quest to bring his love a fallen star even if that star takes the human form of a woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes).
Of course, Tristan isn't the only one looking for Yvaine. The ancient witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs the heart of a star to remain alive and youthful. The heirs of Stormhold's dying king (Peter O'Toole) also vie for the jewel, which will determine the next ruler. It's like every "once upon a time" in history distilled into two hours.
But despite this familiarity, director Matthew Vaughn's choices make everything feel like a mash-up of other movies, stories and amusement park rides. All of it is recognizable, and nearly all of it feels flat.
Not as flat, perhaps, as the lead performances. Charlie Cox, like Orlando Bloom before him, is functional prettiness packing only a smidgen of charisma. That goes double for Claire Danes, who can be either radiant or mournful but appears to be concentrating so hard on her British accent that she can't create an actual character. Even worse, these two make up Stardust's center.
Everything salvaging Stardust from utter tedium sneaks in around the edges: Robert De Niro as the mincing dandy of a pirate captain; Mark Williams (Harry Potter's Arthur Weasley) as a billy goat-turned-human; Ricky Gervais as a motor-mouthed black marketer; a duel between Tristan and a corpse, animated marionette-style, by Lamia.
But when it comes to the fundamentals of the narrative, Stardust feels like a perfunctory stab at transcendent, magical storytelling. Like Frankenstein's monster, it's something sewn together from spare parts but without that spark of lightning that would bring it to life.