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In Victorian England, the village of Wall borders the magical kingdom of Stormhold. When young Tristan (Cox) sees a star fall into Stormhold, he promises to retrieve it for the woman he loves (Miller). However, the star itself, in the form of a young wo


It’s fair to say that the big screen has yet to warm to Neil Gaiman’s idiosyncratic brand of fantasy. 2005’s MirrorMask was visually arresting, but its Lewis Carroll-meets-Salvador Dalí oddness (floating hermaphrodite giants?!) bounced it too far out of reach for a mainstream audience. So while Stardust, the second big-screen adaptation of Gaiman’s work (in collaboration with artist Charles Vess), is due to be followed by a clutch more over the next few years, you still have to give producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn credit for tackling such tricksy material - and in a genre that you wouldn’t readily associate him with, too.

Of course, his X3 diversion a few years ago suggested he was primed for a change, but when Vaughn announced Stardust as his eventual follow-up to directorial debut Layer Cake - which swaggered in the same crime genre that Vaughn had made his name in as producer - it seemed as likely as Guy Ritchie suddenly announcing that his next project would be a cute-robot space adventure.

So, does Vaughn pull it off? Well, Stardust is certainly more coherent and infinitely more audience-friendly than MirrorMask, and Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s script pins down the flightier elements of Gaiman’s fairy tale (not least of which is the very concept of a star taking the stroppy, Timotei’d, hippie-princess form of Claire Danes) with a sharp, hard-edged sense of humour. Vaughn has been heartily upfront about how much his film owes to Rob Reiner’s wonderful The Princess Bride, even happy to highlight the fang-marks left in the print by Monty Python. The film also nods to Terry Gilliam’s post-Flying Circus work, bearing some striking similarities in particular to The Brothers Grimm. It should come as no surprise that Gilliam was offered Stardust, and turned it down precisely because he felt he’d done it all before.

This is no lazy reheat though. The most devilishly entertaining element is the subplot involving Stormhold’s seven princes, one of whom, according to tradition, will become the next king by killing his brothers, the deceased siblings cursed to observe the remaining murders until the heir is found. Each ghost-prince bears the grisly signature of his departure - an axe wedged in the skull, a face squished by the impact of a long fall - but Vaughn smartly makes it cartoon-comical rather than horrific to keep things PG: when one royal meets his end at the slip of a blade, he gushes not red, but blue. Makes sense, really.

Other comical elements fuse less neatly. De Niro’s turn as a lightning-catching sky pirate is smeared too broad, his sense of camp smelling 30-odd years past its sell-by. Ricky Gervais’ cameo, meanwhile, plays like an excuse to crowbar in his usual schtick.

Elsewhere, Vaughn struggles to comfortably pace his episodic pursuit plot-structure, as Tristan (Charlie Cox, upgrading his amiable klutz act from Casanova) and Yvaine (Danes) bicker their way back to Wall with the surviving princes - primarily the malicious Septimus (Mark Strong) - and witch-queen Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) hot on their heels.

Scenes fail to align with the neat jigsaw snap you’d hope for, leaving weak plot devices to hold things together - not just magic as a good ol’ deus ex machina, but more basic flaws, such as characters turning up in convenient locations they surely had no idea how to reach.

At least Pfeiffer and Strong ensure the story boasts some great bad guys, and Vaughn certainly knows how to make it all look great (bar a few creaking CG-shots). Just as he gave London a Michael Mann polish in Layer cake, here he nudges up the Isle Of Skye’s natural beauty to a level approaching the grandeur of Peter Jackson’s New Zealand. It’s a welcome reminder for British audiences that this little country has plenty of fantastical landscapes of its own.

Patchy but great fun, peppering plenty of black humour into a sweet if silly fairy-tale romance.