Boy goes questing in fast, fun fantasy

These days, the fantasy genre has become what Westerns and science fiction were to previous generations of kids: the mode of choice for reading and movie-watching.

The success of the “Harry Potter” franchise and the “Lord of the Rings” movies has brought wizards and dragons back in full fury. This opens the door for the likes of “Stardust,” a cheeky new fantasy epic.

“Stardust” is based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charles Vess. It’s once-upon-a-time stuff, but given a bracing slap of modern attitude.

And it’s not a sequel. This summer, that ought to count for something.

In a delightful opening reel, we learn of the strange birth of Tristan, who grows up in a small English town called Wall. It is called Wall because it is girdled by a strange stone wall, behind which all manner of enchanted things happen. In fact, Tristan was born behind the wall, although he doesn’t know this.

As a young man, Tristan (played by the ingratiating Charlie Cox) falls for a pretty, flighty ladylove (Sienna Miller). Wanting to woo her, he swears to recover a fallen star – which means he will have to journey beyond the wall.

And this is how Tristan stumbles into a grand adventure involving witches, ghosts, pirates and a beautiful silvery maiden (Claire Danes) who might just be a piece of stardust.

Tristan is given many obstacles in his quest, because other people want to retrieve the fallen star. The only surviving sons of a king (Peter O’Toole) are in the hunt, and so is a witch (Michelle Pfeiffer), who needs the essence of the fallen star (i.e., the poor girl’s heart for dinner) in order to keep herself young.

Pfeiffer is fun as the rapidly aging crone, and it looks like pirate king Robert De Niro had just as much fun. Actually, they have a little too much fun – director Matthew Vaughn doesn’t know when to rein in the broadness of his big stars. Ricky Gervais, meanwhile, scores nicely in a small comic role.

Vaughn, who started his career producing Guy Ritchie’s films before directing “Layer Cake,” captures the right airy approach for this material. The film is funny and exciting by turns.

“Stardust” has little real resonance, the kind of stuff that great fairy tales have. What it offers is a swift, cheerful ride through some cleverly imagined landscapes – and enough brashness to keep an adult audience entertained by these things.

Charlie Cox and Claire Danes star in “Stardust.”

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