The light-fingered romantic fantasy novel Stardust is a beguiling pastiche of storybook magic that, while you’re reading it, all but begs you to imagine it as a movie. That’s no surprise, really: Its co-creator, Neil Gaiman, is best known for his graphic novels, such as the celebrated Sandman series, and like many artists of that form, what he conjures is the imaginative thrill of movement on the page — a motion picture that plays out in your head in between the panels (or, as in the case of Stardust, the faux-Victorian illustrations). The paradox is that when a literary special-effects novel gets adapted for the screen, the enchanted bits and pieces that were so ingeniously evocative of movies now just look like…standard, derivative movie magic.
In the film version of Stardust, a sorceress waves her hand, and — poof! — a man dissolves into a cloud of blue pixie dust, which fades away to reveal that he is now a mouse. The mottled wooden ship of a fearsome buccaneer, played (with a few mincing surprises) by Robert De Niro, sails through the air like a phantom galleon out of a Pirates of the Caribbean flick. There are ancient witchy sisters, grouchy little men in leprechaun hats, bolts of green fire, and a shooting star that lands on Earth and literally turns into Yvaine (Claire Danes), a beauty who shimmers with a slightly cheesy halo glow. (It’s like a ’60s Disney effect, and the dress she’s wearing shines too: It’s silver-blue and looks like something Danes might choose for the Oscars.)
There is also a trio of princes, in stagy-looking beards, who are trying to bump each other off as they compete to take over their late father’s throne (each time one of them is killed, he joins the clan’s Beetlejuice gallery of wise-guy black-and-white ghosts); a romantic hero, Tristan, who’s sweet and dashing in just nondescript enough a way to make you wonder whether Charlie Cox, the actor playing him, is a budding star or the next Orlando Bloom; and Michelle Pfeiffer as a 400-year-old crone, ripely evil in her leprous plastic age makeup, who wants to find Yvaine and cut out her heart, thus giving herself a fresh jolt of youth. The name of this chararacter is not Witchiepoo, but there are moments when Stardust resembles nothing so much as the world’s most deluxe episode of H.R. Pufnstuf.
But only moments. The movie, with its thrift-shop magic-wand conceits served up with an airy, at times jokey whimsy, evokes a hundred other things you’ve seen before, but as co-written and directed by Matthew Vaughn (doing a 180 from the blood-soaked gangland trickery of his first film, Layer Cake), it’s deftly put together, with a story that, in its secondhand way, actually gathers steam and makes sense. It’s the closest the movies have come in a while to the nudgy, knowing fairy-tale enchantment of The Princess Bride. Stardust, however, will leave you with one nagging question: Is this what Robert De Niro really thinks is meant by ”fairy tale”?