The experience of seeing Stardust in the theaters recalled to me the reason for going to the theater in the first place: to get lost. And in a film that so expertly veers between suspense, wit, and heartfelt sweetness, getting lost is both inevitable and a pleasure. An intoxicating array of fantastic and epic elements are freewheelingly employed: romance, battles and intrigues for succession, the faerie realm, witchcraft, pirates...and skimmed on top, a layer of sparkling creativity that makes each of these elements fresh and entertaining rather than plot devices meant to draw crowds.
The seven princes who are at loggerheads for the throne have a hilariously, disturbingly violent culture that culminates in one of the running gags of the film, wherein the ghosts of offed princes stick around to chat (and comment on the events of the living in much the same way that beer-bellied men shout vainly at sports games from the stands). The pirate captain, played by Robert De Niro, sets up one of the funniest movie situations I've ever seen. The character brings homosexuality into the film--which reminds us that it's 2007--in the most heartwarming and funny way possible rather than as a ponderous nudge at political correctness.
A number of reviewers have compared Stardust to The Princess Bride, but I think that they are not quite on the same level. Stardust is in some ways more completely entertaining than The Princess Bride, but I highly doubt that the former will ever have a similar cult following. There are no lines of dialogue that are so utterly memorable as to spawn in-jokes for the next twenty years--let's face it, William Goldman is a wordsmith to be reckoned with. Stardust is a remarkably fun, engaging film, but it's not going to change the world. The traditional fairy tale themes are preserved too entirely to be truly innovative--the plot is fun but it is also utterly predictable.
It is possible that Stardust will change the way moviemakers approach fantasy, and help them to realize that fairy tale elements don't need hefty doses of satire to be palatable to contemporary audiences. On the other hand, probably not--the success of the film, if it is successful, will most likely be ascribed to Michelle Pfeiffer's gorgeousness (which is considerable) and Claire Danes's form-fitting gown.
What I like most about Stardust is that finally we have a postmodern fairy tale in the best sense of the term; one that cleverly incorporates contemporary sensibilities and humor while still preserving the essential beauty--which exists even in darkness--that is the core element of fairy tales. It's not as if we don't know what will happen from the start; it's unlikely that there is anyone watching the film who expects the main character to end up with the supercilious Victoria. In the final half hour of the film, it's unlikely that the suspense is real for most viewers concerning the fates of the main character and his love. But instead of sneering at the conventions of fairy tales or at best drenching them in irony, as most contemporary fairy tales are wont to do, Stardust pays loving homage to the genre while at the same time giving us a gay pirate captain. The combination is simultaneously relatable and beautiful, as fairy tales should be.