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Guardians Of The Galaxy’ Conquer The Summer Doldrums

A Furball Named Rocket Raccoon Carries The Picture

Above: The ragtag "Guardians of the Galaxy:" Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Peter Quill (Chriss Pratt), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Drax (David Bautista), out to save the universe if they can just come up with a plan.

Companion Viewing

"Slither" (2006)

"Super" (2010)

"The Avengers" (2012)

When "Guardians of the Galaxy" (opening August 1 throughout San Diego) was announced as a film, my comic book friends were all skeptical that it – and its talking raccoon – could be pulled off.

I never read the "Guardians of the Galaxy" comics, but the original team first appeared in a 1969 Marvel Super Heroes comic and a more modern incarnation (on which the new film draws) hit the stands in 2008-09. The Guardians were never as well known or popular as The Avengers and X-Men, but based on my pool of comic book nerds, they were well loved by some. The chief obstacle many saw to bringing it to the screen as a live action film was making the smart-alecky Rocket Raccoon believable. Director James Gunn had little choice but to CGI the angry furball that has been taken apart and put back together, and then tap an actor to voice him. Rocket Raccoon is not the focus of the film, but the film’s success on many levels is dependent on how successfully Gunn could pull the critter off. I’m happy to report that Gunn, the effects team, and actor Bradley Cooper make Rocket kick ass and then everything else falls into place.

Credit: Marvel

"Guardians of the Galaxy" then and now in the comics.

The film opens on earth in 1988 with young Peter Quill facing the death of his mother and then sudden abduction by aliens. All he has from earth and his mom is an “Awesome Mix Tape” of 80s music (which made all my friends who grew up in the 80s swoon over the music track). Jump a few decades and half a galaxy later, Peter (or Star-Lord as he likes to be called) seems to have adapted well to his new environment. He scavenges the universe and the latest trinket he sets his sights on is a mysterious orb coveted by the villainous Ronan. This leads to Peter (Chris Pratt) being hunted down and forced to form a ragtag team that includes Rocket Raccoon (Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel voicing essentially three words), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Drax (David Bautista). Thanos (Josh Brolin) makes a brief tease appearance to set the manhunt in motion, but Ronan (Lee Pace) gets the bulk of the bad guy duties in this outing.

The plot is not of much consequence both in terms of how it is scripted and what we care about. The beauty and delight of this film is just having a group of characters that we simply love hanging out with and enjoy watching them interact. I know this is supposed to be a summer blockbuster action film but honestly, I would happily trade all the big scale battles in exchange for more scenes with these characters. That’s because they are characters that we actually come to feel have a heart and soul, and that we care about. The irony is that the ones we feel most attached to are the ones that are the least human, the completely CGI-ed Rocket Raccoon and his plant monster co-hort Groot. (I also love Bautista’s overly literal Drax.) But it’s the rapport, the antagonism, and the give and take between these characters that just makes "Guardians of the Galaxy" so much fun to watch.

Credit: Walt Disney/Marvel

Bradley Cooper and a team of CGI artists bring Rocket Raccoon to life in "Guardians of the Galaxy."

At the moment Marvel is kicking ass on DC in terms of their film franchises. The main reason for this is the people they have chosen. Joss Whedon (heading “The Avengers” franchise), Jon Favreau (with “Iron Man”), and now Gunn are all geeks who understand what it is that makes us love these comic books. It’s not the plots or the action or the wild fantasy aspects, it’s the characters that we keep coming back for. And the more you can put the superhero aspect of the stories aside and focus on who these people (or non-people) are, the more engaged we become. Whedon does this brilliantly in “The Avenger” films. It’s not so much about saving the world but about how all those egos fit in one room or how a sibling rivalry pans out. DC’s films (okay Christopher Nolan’s "Batman" films are the exception) tend to be about superheroes being superheroes, and that’s far less engaging and fun (witness recent “Superman”).

Gunn comes from a the truly indie film scene, having done early work at Troma Entertainment. He showed his genre chops with the clever creature feature “Slither” and his ability to deliver something more complex with “Super.” For “Guardians” he finds the perfect blend of humor, action and sincerity. He builds the film from the camaraderie/friction of the characters, and that’s a perfect foundation for what looks to be another Marvel franchise. “Guardians 2” is slated for 2017.

I’m still not convinced that 3D adds any real value to a film. Only “Pacific Rim” delivered 3D that impressed me and that I paid to see a second time in 3D. 3D technology has potential, but at the moment Hollywood is just treating it as a gimmick to allow them to charge more for tickets. It makes no matter whether you see "Guardians" in 3D or 2D because the characters have enough dimensionality on their own that you don't need any gimmicky special effects.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language) is the perfect summer movie, delivering exactly what you want from a comic book adaptation. But what’s surprising is how much more you will come away impressed by the characters and their interaction than with any of the visual effects.

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