Stardust (PG)

Producers looking for the next fairytale moneyspinner should know that it takes more than star cameos to turn guff into gold
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Harry Potter and the denizens of Middle Earth have magical powers, all right. They have the power to convince movie producers that a fantasy franchise could make them very rich, hence the three different films out this week which wouldn't exist without the works of Mr Tolkien and Ms Rowling. The most high-profile is Stardust, based on the book by Neil Gaiman. Charlie Cox plays Tristan, a shop assistant in a village that lies on the border between Victorian Britain and the mystical realm of Faerie. The girl he adores, Sienna Miller, promises to marry him if he brings her the star they see falling into Faerie from the night sky, so Tristan sets off on a quest through the world of unicorns and enchantments. He soon discovers that the fallen star has taken the form of an irritable woman, Claire Danes, and that she's also sought after by a witch, Michelle Pfeiffer (right), and seven princes, most of whom are ghosts.

Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer, Jane Goldman, have taken their outline from Gaiman's novel, but changed almost everything else. The book wants to be a wistful elegy for folklore, nursery rhymes, traditions and woodlands. The film just wants to be a blockbuster, and so it's bursting with celebrity cameos, computer-generated effects, and bombastic music from a composer who must have been getting paid by the decibel. Beneath all of its sound and fury, Stardust has a hero who doesn't do anything very heroic. Like any self-respecting fairy-tale adventurer, Tristan grows from a blundering innocent into a swashbuckling conqueror, but this growth doesn't occur because of the perils he overcomes. His entire transformation takes place during the day or two he spends as a passenger onboard a flying ship captained by Robert De Niro. The captain teaches Tristan how to fence, kits him out with a new haircut and a dandy wardrobe, and instructs him in matters of the heart. Tristan does what he's told. Sir Ian McKellen's pompous voice-over may declare that Stardust is the story of how a boy becomes a man, but, in fact, it's the story of how a boy gets a makeover.

The film still passes the time as a colourful pantomime. It's always fun when it focuses on the ghostly princes, every one of whom is a recognisable British comic actor, and there's a show-stopping swordfight between a human and a zombie. But that fight is one of the only sequences that pulls you into the action. More often you're lifted out of it by the variable accents, the uncertain tone, the numerous endings, and the way Danes's eyebrows are bleached to invisibility, making her look oddly simian. Stardust doesn't sustain a magical atmosphere, and without that, we aren't seeing a fairy kingdom; we're seeing people in fancy dress wandering around a forest.