Lost in Stardust is the poetry of Gaiman's writing ("His fingers touched the chain that bound them: cold as snow it was, and tenuous as moonlight on a millpond or the glint of light on a trout's silver scales as it rises at dusk to feed"), replaced by brute-force storytelling — quick, from Point A to Point B! Still, Gaiman's story is sturdy enough to survive, for the most part, the whittling, flaying and butchering of writers Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, the latter of whom also directed after most recently baking Layer Cake with cocaine and gristle.
Gaiman's story is as old as papyrus itself — a quest tale in which a young man named Tristan (the generic Charlie Cox) must endure myriad perils (duplicitous kings, vengeful witches, lightning-collecting pirates) in order to fetch a fallen star that's the object of his alleged true love's deepest desires. (The true love is played by Sienna Miller, who recently proved in Steve Buscemi's overwrought Interview that she's capable of getting any man to do or say anything, no matter how ridiculous.)
Alas, the star is far more than a radiant rock; she's called Yvaine, played by Claire Danes, and she's furious about her new earthbound digs and far more woman than our hero's shallow temptress. But Tristan isn't the only person in the fantasyland of Stormhold seeking the star: Also on her trail are a trio of aging witches — chief among them Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), who must devour Yvaine's heart to save her own brittle bones and brutally weathered visages from disintegrating — and two would-be kings, Primus (Jason Flemyng) and Septimus (Mark Strong), who need Yvaine's glowing necklace before they can take their father's throne.
No doubt Stardust will accrue many comparisons to Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride, but Vaughn's variation on the theme isn't as playful as Reiner's. Stardust doesn't troll for big laughs; it's more heartfelt than Reiner's parody, more earnest homage than giddy wink-wink. And that's all Gaiman: He creates characters so we can love them as much as he does, not make fun of them.
That's why, when Stardust devolves into comedy, it fails miserably. Robert De Niro, once more trying, on purpose, to make people laugh, shows up halfway through as Captain Shakespeare, the closeted, cross-dressing captain of a high-flying pirate ship who rescues Yvaine and Tristan from a cloud upon which they've been stranded. Shakespeare doesn't actually appear in the book; there is only a minor character named Captain Alberic, who comes without the feather boas and mincing gestures. Shakespeare doesn't fit into the story; he's a distracting reminder that, hey, this is just a silly movie about silly things starring famous people acting silly.
Just when you're willing to forgive Vaughn the copious liberties that he has taken with Gaiman's material, along comes something totally unpardonable: the great De Niro flouncing about in a gown, the very opposite of magical. (He's no Billy Crystal, after all, and there is no storming of the castle, alas.) Just as indefensible is any movie that casts Ricky Gervais as a stealer and seller of magical objects, then takes away his voice. It's almost like casting Peter O'Toole, only to kill him off within the first two minutes he's on screen — which, yes, Stardust also manages to do.
Maybe Vaughn, heretofore a maker of overblown Brit gangster films (he also produced Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch), doesn't completely get it — or doesn't want to admit that he does. At times, he revels in the beauty and fragility of Gaiman's creation. At other times, he gets a little lost on his way, as though he's embarrassed to fully commit to the magic and must instead keep reminding us that it's all a dream.