(CNN) -- Not just your basic, average everyday, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, ho-hum fairy tale, "Stardust" is a dazzler very nearly from first to last, a live action film that rivals the best recent animated features for imagination and wit.
Claire Danes and Charlie Cox star in the imaginative "Stardust."
Indeed, at a pinch you might describe it as "Shrek" for grown-ups --- though I've a suspicion the great Japanese filmmaker Hiyao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away") may have been a more important inspiration.
The movie combines many of the archetypes of a classic bedtime story. First, there's Tristran (Charlie Cox), an intrepid young hero from the wrong side of the tracks (or so he thinks), embarking on a romantic quest to bring back a fallen star as a token of his love for beautiful, aloof Victoria (Sienna Miller).
This quest takes him from an English village -- "Wall" -- into another land, Stormhold, a magical realm where the star in question has transformed into Yvaine (Claire Danes). She's blonde and grumpy, but obviously a better bet than you-know-who -- if only Tristran would stop mooning over the girl he left behind.
Stormhold is home to a rapidly dwindling family of fratricidal princes vying for the throne. The last men standing, Septimus and Primus (Mark Strong and Jason Flemyng) are also after the star, glumly observed from the monochromatic sidelines by their five murdered brothers.
Then there's the wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her two evil sisters. Their magic is on the wane, but a fresh injection of stardust will restore their youth and vitality. Lamia means to intercept Yvaine, pluck out her heart and eat it raw. Fava beans apparently are optional.
Adapted from Neil Gaiman's novel by Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn, "Stardust" gets off to a false start with a prologue told in such broad strokes it comes off as crude and supercilious, even with no less a personage than Sir Ian McKellen narrating. But this richly plotted, thumpingly scored story settles into a groove as soon as Yvaine enters the picture and the chase is on.
Cut from the same slightly damp cloth as Orlando Bloom, Charlie Cox is dashing and bumbling in roughly equal measure -- a quintessentially English combination that will either have you swooning or groaning. As usual, Claire Danes radiates intelligence, but struggles with the naiveté required to offset her character's crankiness.
Whatever you make of the young folk, there's no question that the real star power emanates from a delectably witchy Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro, very droll as a pirate captain by the name of Shakespeare who has a surprising skeleton in his closet.
It's also the case that they have the best props. Apparently having the time of her life at 48 (she's already been a hoot in "Hairspray"), Pfeiffer clearly savors playing a woman who ages another notch with every spell she casts. De Niro, for his part, mans the helm of an airship that's part galleon, part zeppelin, and he smuggles lightning bolts for a living.
This elaborate strain of fantasy meshes easily enough with a cheeky, Monty Pythonish sense of humor, even if the mild ribaldry makes it a questionable proposition for kids. Still, this handsomely produced movie marks a significant step up in scale and accomplishment for Guy Ritchie's producer, Vaughn, whose only previous directing effort was the gangster thriller "Layer Cake."
For a generation that grew up on "The Princess Bride," it's got to feel like a long-overdue happy ending.
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