A guy, a girl, a raccoon and a talking tree walk into a bar, and…
Oh, wait, that’s not a joke; it’s the plot of “The Guardians of the Galaxy.” And after they walk into the bar, they save the universe.
Remarkably, the plot carries its premise with enough self-awareness and aplomb to keep from becoming a punchline.
After being abducted from Earth as a boy, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has found a place for himself as an interstellar treasure hunter. When he tries to sell a piece of swag himself instead of going through his former boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker), Yondu sets a bounty on his head.
A team of thieves and bounty hunters, Rocket the genetically modified raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot the anthropomorphic tree (voiced by Vin Diesel), go after him. Meanwhile, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of the galactic warlord Thanos (an uncredited Josh Brolin), goes after the trinket he carries for her father and his general, Ronan (Lee Pace).
After a skirmish in the normally peaceful town square, Peter, Gamora, Rocket and Groot are arrested and hauled off to jail, where they meet Drax (Dave Bautista), an inmate with an ax to grind with Ronan. The five of them manage to escape, and head to Knowhere to sell the relic Peter stole. The buyer, The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), whose was teased at the end of “Thor: The Dark World,” reveals that the innoculous-looking orb contains a great power that could destroy whole galaxies.
Naturally, Ronan and Thanos’ daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan), find it almost immediately thereafter, and the little band of outlaws has to come up with a plan before Ronan destroys the universe.
The thing about “Guardians of the Galaxy” is that it knows it’s ridiculous. It knows that, no matter how many cool plant-related things Groot can do or how high Gamora can kick in her tight leather pants, it doesn’t have the same street cred as “The Avengers,” which is clearly the cool kids at the proverbial table. So what does it do? Like many a less-popular kid, it falls back on humor.
Seriously, this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a while. Every time it starts to stray into eye-rolling territory, it brings it back. Sure, there are still some clichés it imbibes in and there are a few eyebrow-raising moments, but for the most part, “Guardians” perfectly treads the line between silly and serious. It’s got sort of that rollicking adventure feel like “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Indiana Jones.”
Casting is nearly perfect on every count. Chris Pratt handles the spotlight perfectly here, both Cooper and Diesel’s voice talents are spot-on for the job, and it’s hard to imagine anyone but Bautista as Drax. Pace, as usual, dissolves into his role so fully you have to check the credits to make sure it’s really him. Glenn Close and John C. Reilly also appear as officers for the Nova Corps, a galactic peace-keeping organization. Everyone else was so good I almost forgot Gillan was in it (I really don’t like Karen Gillan).
The graphics are also amazing. There’s a lot of in-space action, and it looks nearly as touchable as last year’s “Gravity.” The soundtrack helps keep things light with a string of hits from the ’70s and ’80s — relics from Peter’s childhood — that make audience members want to dance almost as much as the characters on screen (and there’s kind of a lot of dancing).
Oh, but don’t bother staying through the credits, unless you actually like reading the credits. Sadly, there is no bonus scene.
One caution: Yes, this is a funny movie, and yes, it has a talking racoon, and yes, it’s a comic book movie, but, parents, you might not want to take the kids to this one. There’s plenty of violence, though little blood, and many of the funniest antics are not ones at least I’d want my kid showing off at school. If you take your kids to this movie and find yourself in the principal’s office next month trying to explain a wind-up middle finger, don’t blame me.
Overall, though, “Guardians” manages to soar despite its odd premise. It promises a sequel, and I’m looking forward to it.