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Once upon a time . . . that fairy-tale phrase glistened with wonder luster. Children’s imaginations were sparked by fantasy literature that placed all adventure — fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles — in the past tense. “Thrilling days of yesteryear!” “A long time ago in a galaxy . . . ” Locating these tales in the world’s own childhood taught children their roles in the continuing drama of the human family. It also carried a cautionary moral: things were better then, more exciting and romantic, than they could ever be now. Youth is a prince who dreams that anything is possible, and maturity is a peasant with the wisdom to acknowledge that almost nothing is. Only at the pristine beginning of our lives can we believe in happy endings.

Today’s jaded youth hardly needs to be taught this lesson; sword-and-sorcery movies usually go belly up at the box office. So the trick for any modern would-be Grimm is to blend the warring moods of fantasy and cynicism. The story must create a land of outsize heroes and villains yet comment ironically on the unhappy state of a land that needs them. The tone must be grandly facetious to accommodate believers as well as skeptics. William Goldman tried all this in his 1973 novel The Princess Bride. His narrative had all the proper ingredients and all the right new moves: he deconstructed his text and undercut it with the cadences of a Borscht Belt raconteur. But on the page, Goldman’s wordplay seemed too much of a jape. It needed the expanse of cinema — where on the late show Errol Flynn and Gunga Din are still storybook young — to revive the poetry of fable. Now, 14 years later, he and Rob Reiner have got it smashingly right.

Gather round, kids of all ages, as swashbuckling Westley (played by Cary Elwes, who looks like a young Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) sets out to rescue the impossibly beautiful Buttercup (Robin Wright) from a monarchy full of dastards. To do this, he will outduel the expert swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), outwit the scheming Sicilian Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and outwrestle a rodent of unusual size. Buttercup will survive an attack by a swarm of shrieking eels and an attempt on her honor by wicked Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), whom Westley will climactically engage in a fight “to the pain.” There will be a duel of styles too: of romantic grandeur against the balloon-pricking impishness of a cast culled from Saturday Night Live (Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest), Beyond the Fringe (Peter Cook) and Not the Nine o’Clock News (Mel Smith). The air will billow with bombastic insults (“You hippopotamic land mass!”) and a record-breaking number of comic speech impediments.

But Reiner will rein in the facetiousness; it will heighten the adventure, not bury it. His last film, Stand By Me, was suffused with such yuppie winsomeness that today’s generation of teenage boys could use it as their fathers had used copies of The Prophet: to impress girls with their sensitivity. Here, liberated by parody, he remints visual cliches, like the gloriously fake matte paintings of fairy-tale realms, and they are funny-lovely. As for the Princess Bride, she is flat-out lovely. Wright’s grave blond beauty makes her the wedding-cake figure around which all the movie’s clowns cavort. As you watch this enchanting fantasy, feel free to be thrilled or to giggle, as you wish. This time, Happily Ever After lasts 98 minutes.

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