Matthew Vaughn’s “Stardust” proves that a little whimsy goes a long way, especially when accompanied by special-effects overkill.
Still, if you’re in an indulgent mood or if you’ve had it with wizards and witches and magic spells lately, you may warm to this fractured fairy tale, which gently mocks so many of the conventions of the genre. While several scenes may test your patience, they’re usually followed by an episode or two that has just enough goofball charm to get by.
You know you’re not exactly in Tolkien/Rowling land during the opening scene: a rather saucy prologue that establishes the origins of a baby named Tristan, who quickly grows up to be the hero of the movie.
Tristan is clearly intended as a star-making role for Charlie Cox, a young British actor who appeared in supporting roles in “Casanova” and “The Merchant of Venice.” His bland good looks may suggest a minor player miscast in the central part, but Cox quickly establishes a tongue-in-cheek tone that wears surprisingly well during the two-hour running time.
He gets plenty of help from Sienna Miller as the heartless beauty, Victoria, who toys with the infatuated Tristan, and Claire Danes as a more innocent girl, Yvaine, who tries to drum some sense into the love-struck boy. (She is also, quite literally, a star who takes human form, but that’s another story.)
Peter O’Toole narrates the early scenes and eventually turns up, in full “Lion in Winter” mode, playing an aging king who must decide which of his worthless sons — among them Rupert Everett and Jason Flemyng — will take over once he’s gone. The sons keep dying off and turning up as ghosts who gripe about the storyline and behave like unruly audience members.
Also contributing to the cheeky tone are Ricky Gervais as a sneaky trader known as Ferdy the Fence and Robert De Niro as a closeted transvestite pirate, Captain Shakespeare, the supposedly monstrous captain of a flying ship that rescues Tristan and Yvaine.
Eventually the script, based on a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, turns into a showdown between Tristan and Yvaine and a ruthless witch, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose frequent transformations suggest the vain queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” who wanted to be “fairest in the land.”
It’s at this point that Vaughn, who made his directing debut working with Miller and Flemyng on “Layer Cake,” stops trusting his comic instincts and allows computer-generated effects to take over. If you’ve seen one wizard’s battle, unfortunately, it’s safe to conclude that you’ve seen, well, most of them.
The movie works best as a series of amusing moments: Lamia and her fellow witches doing their darnedest to top “Macbeth,” the nerdy Tristan’s rivalry with Victoria’s smoother boyfriend, his father’s advice about the vanishing nature of adolescent “popularity,” the sarcastic running commentary of the dead brothers. The more fractured this fairy tale becomes, the more together it seems.