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David Swindle
Grade: A-

Finally! After almost 20 years of being one of the most innovative, exciting writers on the planet Neil Gaiman has a real, big-budget, special-effects-laden adaptation of one of his works. And not just any of his novels, short stories, or comics, but Stardust, one of the real gems of his bibliography.

Gaiman first rose to prominence in the late '80s and early '90s when he joined such British writers as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison to revive various DC Comics characters. While Moore took Swamp Thing, Morrison Animal Man, Gaiman took the especially obscure Sandman and recreated him as the embodiment of Dream itself. "The Sandman" was born, one of the most honored and revered comic series of recent history and one of the core, launching titles of DC's Vertigo line-up.

Since then Gaiman has had dual careers in both comics and prose. In 1990 he released Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, a comedic fantasy novel about angels, demons, the antichrist and the end of the world. His first solo hit was the 1996 novel Neverwhere about a second world beneath the busy streets of London. Gaiman's second novel was Stardust, published with illustrations by Charles Vess in 1998. Arguably Gaiman's most successful novel is the 2001 American Gods later followed by the spin-off Anansi Boys in 2005. Also released recently was 2002's Coraline, a children's novel currently in the process of being adapted for a release in January of 2009.

To oversimplify a little bit, the reason for Gaiman's success and popularity is pretty simple. He takes familiar themes and conventions of fantasy and mythology and makes them fresh and new. This can be seen abundantly in "Stardust," the new film adaptation directed by Matthew Vaughn, director of "Layer Cake," and producer of the Guy Ritchie cult films "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch."

The protagonist of "Stardust" is Tristan, a young shop-boy in the British village of Wall, some 130 years ago. The boy has fallen hard for Victoria, a girl who appreciates his favors and gifts but whose love is conditional. One night the two are sharing a meal in the countryside - which Tristan has spent all his savings to buy - when they see a shooting star. To prove his love Tristan offers to find the shooting star and bring it to Victoria within a week - the date of Victoria's birthday and also the day when a rival suitor will be returning with a ring.

The village is called Wall because it's on the border of a mysterious wall that supposedly separates England from the magical realm of Stormhold. When Tristan tries to sneak across the wall he is blocked by the town's wall guardian who accidentally reveals that Tristan's father had managed to cross the wall 18 years ago, an act that resulted in Tristan's birth from a mysterious, enslaved princess on the other side. When Tristan reveals what he's learned to his father, he gives the boy a note - which he has never read - that was included with Tristan when he was dropped off as an infant in a basket. The note is from his mother and contains a magical Babylon candle which can transport the user wherever he wishes to go. And so Tristan lights the candle, expecting to arrive at the home of his mother. Instead, a thought of Victoria creeps into his mind and he finds himself with an altogether different woman: Yvaine (Claire Danes,) the star who fell from the sky. Tristan then begins the weeklong journey home to bring Yvaine to Victoria to claim his love. It's a journey that will transform him from a bumbling boy into a swashbuckling man of courage and action.

It will not be smooth sailing, though. A fallen star is a very desirable property in the magical realm of Stormhold. Tristan and Yvaine are pursued by two adversaries. The first is those responsible for knocking the star from the sky, a dying king (Peter O'Toole) who decreed that his remaining living sons must find the star to determine who shall succeed him as king. Second are a trio of witch sisters who long for the star because by feasting on her heart they can regain their youth and beauty. Yvaine and Tristan will collide with both enemies and others, including the notorious air pirate Captain Shakespeare, played brilliantly by Robert De Niro.

It's been a long time since I read the illustrated novel upon which the film is based. It would be difficult for me to point out the cinematic departures and differences from the text. However, what I can report is that the filmmakers faithfully captured perhaps the most important aspect of the book: it is just such a satisfying yarn. It all ends so perfectly. Leaving the theatre I felt the same feeling I had when I closed the covers of the book: all my emotional needs were met. How often does that happen? Where it's hard to imagine a fairy tale ending more gracefully.

The film has a few bumps along the road. Especially with the first half of the film the various scenes are intriguing and colorful but fail to mesh together or flow very well. I'd attribute that to the inexperience of the director. It's only Vaughn's second film as director and it's a very different picture from the so-so, much lower budgeted gangster drama "Layer Cake."

I'd like to hope that this would be the first of many adaptations of Gaiman works. Unfortunately "Stardust" did not fare particularly well at the box office this past weekend, earning less than $10 million and unfortunate designation of "flop." Hopefully that won't discourage the studios from pursuing adaptations of Neverwhere, American Gods, Anansi Boys and the dozens of short stories Gaiman has published. Personally as far as The Sandman goes I'd rather see a nice, big-budgeted HBO series rather than a movie.

In the mean time, though, be sure and check out "Stardust" and take a look at the wonderful novel upon which it's based.