"GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY" (9 out of 10)  – Directed by James Gunn; Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman; Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Coopert, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro; Rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.” Opens in wide release August 1, 121 minutes.

Sing it with me now: “Ooga-chaka, ooga-ooga, ooga-chaka, ooga-ooga. . .”

One of the most highly anticipated (and feared) of the Marvel releases was this outer space movie starring a talking racoon and a giant tree. This is a concept genuinely weird for normally risk-averse Hollywood, especially given the sensibilities of indie genre cult fave James Gunn (Slither, Super).

So is this the home run we all hope it would be, or that looping fly ball off into left field? Is it “Star Wars” or “Zardoz”?

This is the best movie of the summer. Any concerns about whether or not this was going to work were gone after the opening credits scene. I was immediately engrossed by the artistry of this film. The 3D actually incredibly well done and made these alien landscapes seem both real and immersive. And I’ll never listen to “Come and Get Your Love” the same way ever again. Go and see this on the biggest screen with the loudest speakers you can find.

Never seen a Marvel movie before or even glanced at a comic book? Here’s everything you need to know to understand this movie: Nothing. Nada. Zilch. It sets up its own universe so well but also seamlessly works with the rest of the Marvel universe in a way that will make fanboys wet their pants.

The smartest thing James Gunn does here is weave together this huge cast of motley characters slowly. The first 15 or 20 minutes of the movie, we’re essentially following Peter Quill (aka Starlord) and his story, starting with him being taken from Earth as a kid. He’s our Luke Skywalker, he’s our entry point into this weird universe.

Then each of the other characters gets their own introduction, including their own motivations, and why they’re going after this interstellar macguffin everyone is calling “the orb.”

So if Starlord is the Luke of this movie, that allows Rocket and Groot to be the Han Solo and Chewbacca. And the two of them really own this movie. From the moment they announce to the prison population of The Kyln that they are in charge, they take ownership of this movie and never let go. Both of them, but Groot especially, also provide a lot of the heart and the comedy of the movie.

This is the summer of the seamless digital characters, between these two and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” They’re just as real and alive as the other characters and are more engaging and “real” in a sense than some of the human characters playing under makeup and prosthetics. And wait around until the credits to see the toy that everyone is going to want: dancing Groot.

I was initially really worried how they were going to get such a huge cast with so many characters and give each their due. Benicio del Toro as The Collector. John C. Reilly and Glen Close as NovaCorps members. Michael Rooker as Yondu. And if you would’ve told me that several other iconic Marvel characters would also show up, I’d tell you this movie sounded completely overstuffed and untenable. But they manage to pull it off.

And make no mistake. This is a James Gunn movie. From casting his brother Sean as one of Yondu’s henchmen to the overall aesthetic, this is pure James Gunn. I can't wait for the Blu-Ray (and multiple theater viewings) to try to find all the easter eggs just in the scenes with The Collector. The way he uses Peter Quill's "Awesome Mix" to supply the soundtrack is as amazing as it is organic. As weird as it is hearing a lot of these "Hits from the 70's" types of songs, it somehow fits. In the same way that it was cool to see what Joss Whedon could do with a huge budget to make "The Avengers," this is also great to be able to see Gunn be able to deliver something of this epic of a scale. I can’t say it enough: make sure you see this in IMAX 3D or the biggest screen possible. And yes, 3D.

I only have a few complaints. First is the giant tease that Marvel is playing with their fans. This movie ties together and reveals a lot of what we’ve supposed so far about “Infinity Gems” and Thanos. But don’t go in expecting this to be about those things.

This is all a very cheeky nerd burlesque show with no more actual nudity than is allowed on most cable shows. The girl is going to come out dressed like a stormtrooper, but she’s never going to actually show you the bits you really want to see.  But in this, Marvel has perfected the art of the tease for their fans.

Meanwhile, normal fans who have seen the other films but have no idea what an “Infinity Gauntlet” is get a strong, cohesive plot that is easy to digest. It helps when Benicio del Toro shows up halfway through the movie to explain everything.

My second complaint is that Karen Gillan, one of the most adorable people on the planet, gets stuck playing Nebula. No gorgeous red hair, no cute face. Hiring Karen Gillan for this part is like buying a Monet and putting it in your closet. And she’s given little to do except be robotic and badass. Ok, well, maybe that part is ultra-cool. But I wants her read hair back!

Tiny complaints aside, this is the best movie of the summer. But it's not the best movie of the year ("Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier" is) or the best Marvel movie ("Avengers," duh) but it's up there. Cap 2 seemed to so perfectly capture a message that fit what's going on in America today, and it had a lot to say about it. However, Guardians delivers some pretty hefty meaning for a flick featuring a talking tree. Despite all of them acting on their own self interest, motivated by greed, vengeance, rebellion, or even simple self-preservation, the team comes together to work to save the universe. And that's what makes them heroes, despite none of them wearing capes, costumes, or having a robot suit. 

And to top it all off, I can think of no higher praise than to talk about how much my kids loved it. Especially Rocket and Groot. 

9 out of 10

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