I haven't figured out yet whether Stardust is essentially charming or essentially disposable, although I suppose there's no reason that it can't be both. It is after all August, and the line between "good cinema" and "watchable movie" is at its annual ebb. Stardust, I think, is fun, no more; but that's honestly enough for me, especially this summer.

It's pretty much impossible to watch the movie without thinking of several other movies, but that's not much of a criticism in this particular case. The source novel, after all, was written by Neil Gaiman, a fantasist famous (or notorious, if that's what you prefer) for synthesising as many pre-established ideas as he can possibly cram into one narrative; originality is not only besides the point, it's against the point, which is to explore the idea of "storytelling" through an often clichéd and overly familiar story.

The film Stardust surely doesn't have such a strong meta-narrative as that (and to be fair, the novel is probably the least meta work of Gaiman's that I'm aware of), but the "unoriginal!" attack still seems pretty disingenuous here. Yes, it's unoriginal, but virtually all fantasy is; besides, there are more valid ways to attack the film, and more enjoyable aspects to praise.

The Frankensteinian concoction that is the plot: 18-year-old Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) lives in the village of Wall in northern England in the middle of the 19th Century. Having made a promise to the flighty Victoria (Sienna Miller) that he will find a fallen star for her hand in marriage, he crosses the ancient stone wall that gives the village its name, and thereby enters the faerie kingdom of Stormhold. Rather quickly he finds that the star is a woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes), and as he struggles to take her back to England, they encounter an assortment of various players all seeking the star for their own ends: the witch queen Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), the warring princes Primus (Jason Flemyng) and Septimus (Mark Strong), and the sky pirate Captain Shakespeare (Robert De Niro). There are several minor and a couple of major changes from the book, but they are all justified: the novel was a better novel, and the changes, especially to the ending, make the film a better film.

Like nearly all post-Tolkien fantasies, Stardust is a coming of age story hidden inside a travelogue, and like most fantasy movies, it's essentially just a collection of setpieces. That's either good or bad as you think it is - de gustibus non est disputandum - but it's not really fair to the movie to require it to be else than that. So when I say that there are good and bad things about the film, I'm mostly referring to two things: the quality of performance and characterisation, and the skill with which the setpieces are executed.

Probably the worst single aspect of the film - besides its overarching aimlessness - is a matter of performance, Claire Danes as Yvaine. As far back as I can remember, I've never been much of a fan of Danes's, but that's not the problem here. The problem here is that she's pretty inexpressive, showing only two emotions - peevishness and moony affection - and in a film topped off with so many grotesqueries as this, that means that she gets swallowed up. Given her central role in the story, that's a pretty significant weakness.

In honesty, most of the cast isn't great, but they do well enough. Charlie Cox has made a few films before, but this is his first starring role, and he's plenty charismatic in a role that consists primarily of letting things happen to him. Such familiar faces as Peter O'Toole and Ricky Gervais come on for small roles that exist mostly to reinforce their existing personae without asking too terribly much of the actors; they're comfort-food cameos.

The standouts, predictably, are De Niro and Pfeiffer, for basically the same reason: camp. Literally in De Niro's case, when Captain Shakespeare is revealed as an anglophilic transvestite. The characters are both giant cartoons, and both actors have evident joy in playing them to the hilt. De Niro hasn't been as much fun to watch in many years, and his small performance, though it be regressive and obvious, is perhaps the most memorable aspect of the film. Pfeiffer hasn't been much fun to watch in many years either, for a different reason, but even forgiving her long absence from the cinema, this hyper-female villain shtick is more than a little reminiscent of her great role as the surreal Catwoman in Batman Returns, 15 long years ago. She chews the scenery without shame, and it's a marvel to watch.

As to the setpieces: director Matthew Vaughn was not altogether the best choice for this material, perhaps, but he doesn't do anything very wrong. This is his second film as a director, after kick-starting the British gangster genre by producing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and introducing the world in a big way to Daniel Craig's action hero side in Layer Cake. His work directing that later film was a revelation; he out-Ritchie'd Ritchie. But fantasy is not the same thing as gangster action, and Stardust's episodic nature flummoxes him. The film I was most reminded of, I think, was Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits, all starts and stops without any particular elegance. What Gilliam had that Vaughn lacks is a godly sense for compelling imagery; by the same token, Vaughn is much better at maintaining an even tone - the film always has a sense of play that is very close to the book. The scenes do not always hang next to each other properly, but they are all comfortably part of the same film. Coherent incoherence, if I can be an indefensible pretentious jackass for a moment.

Really, though, Stardust only had a few goals to hit, and it hits them: it is more often fun than not, it is more often imaginative than not. As far as well-realized cinematic fantasy worlds go, this is not one for the ages, but it is a pleasing way to waste a couple of hours in the company of mostly engaging characters. Like I said: August. Take what you can get. It's fun, and fun is better than a lot of movies out there right now.