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It's a fairy tale, it's a romantic fantasy, it's an action-adventure film. It's about kings and princes and witches and celestial beings and pirates and a wide-eyed, decent young lad who just wants to win the girl of his dreams. And there's always time for a waltz.

It also comes from a book by Neil Gaiman, which should signal to the prolific British author's fans that the film's mood will fall somewhere between the Harry Potter franchise and The Princess Bride.

The big surprise is that such a gentle and charming film is only the second directing effort from Matthew Vaughn, who also made the tough and gritty Layer Cake in 2004 (with Daniel Craig as a cocaine dealer).True, Stardust has its share of bloodless violence and peril, but it also has a genuine warmth, and a light, sometimes very funny touch. So let's hear it for new directors who like to keep doing new things.

The film's prologue presents a long stone wall stretching across a field in long-ago England. But there's a hole in it -- a portal, we're told, to another world. It's through that hole that Dunstan (Nathaniel Parker), a curious young man, sneaks, meets up with a beautiful woman, has a wild night, goes home, and, nine months later, finds a baby in a basket on his doorstep.

We next meet up with Dunstan 18 years later, when his less-than-strapping, but always well-intentioned son Tristan (Charlie Cox) is trying to find the right words to say to win over the lovely Victoria (the lovely Sienna Miller). By the end of the prologue, poor Tristan has poured his heart out to the girl, promising to journey far to retrieve a falling star they've seen -- if only she'll agree to marry him. Thoughtless to the core and knowing that such a fanciful idea is groundless, she acquiesces, sending Tristan off, like a happy puppy, to bring back her star.

Ah, if only each of them knew that anyone catching that star -- which turns into a woman who goes by the name of Yvaine (Claire Danes) -- will be rewarded with immortality. If only Tristan knew that it's already being sought by the viciously competitive brothers of a dying king (whoever finds it wins the crown too) and by three old, evil crones (they'll become young again ... forever).

As if such a prologue weren't action-packed enough, soon Tristan is turning into a fireball (don't ask), and a pirate ship of lightning-catchers, commanded by Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro), sails by. Vaughn's cameras, taking notice of spectacular fields, mountains, and oceans, soar through the air.

The stories keep jumping back and forth between life on both sides of the wall -- one side being normal and kind of drab, while the other is literally the stuff of magic. The most aggressive of the evil hags, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) calls on a special spell to turn herself young. Among the crowd of brothers vying for the crown, meanwhile, murder is a way of life -- the unlucky ones keep showing up in an ever-growing crowd of ghosts, acting as a sort of comic Greek chorus.

There's actually a lot of humor here, from broad, falling-down slapstick to Pfeiffer's overplayed, annoyed eye-rolling to some patches of subtle raunchiness. Both Danes and Cox give winning performances as two people thrown together who know nothing about love. He's just too young and innocent, and she's only gazed at Earth-life from far away in the heavens. Halfway through, most viewers would be willing to bet that Pfeiffer is the film's scenery-chewer, but then De Niro -- in a role no one could have imagined, and his most offbeat since Brazil -- opens his mouth wide, sinks his teeth in, and steals the spotlight away.

Add to that some marvelous visual effects, especially involving the big flying ship, and you've got a film that, like the near-perfect gem that sets the story spinning, is practically flawless.

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