It's not the novelty of the talking raccoon that makes this so noteworthy. After all, there are plenty of talking raccoons, including Over The Hedge. It's what a talking raccoon portends. It promises a movie that will attempt to be different instead of casting the latest beefcake actor who's been plastic surgeoned within an inch of his life auditioning for a role in The Expendable 69: We're Not Too Old To Make A Puerile Joke About Our Title. In an era of increasingly cookie cutter movies, people don't want greatness per se, they just want something different. Where films are made with an eye towards not doing anything to give the audience a reason to reject it, Guardians Of The Galaxy puts its energy towards giving you a reason to embrace it. The difference is subtle, but it stands out against all the other comic book movies like a neon cockroach in a bowl of grits.
The opening minutes of the movie are deceiving, as it features a double whammy of a dying mother and an alien ship abducting a kid. This is played straight, not in a jokey "worst day ever" mode. The kid, Peter Quill, freaks out because he refused his mother's request to hold his hand as she died and just wants to get away, and a group of space pirates oblige. We then cut to the present day, where Quill has grown up to be a ravager. He steals a little something called the Orb (I'm fighting the urge to make Brisco County Jr. jokes right now), and soon finds himself in the middle of a group of ruffians pursuing the Orb or him for their own ends. An uneasy truce is struck, and the whole group is on the run.
One of the sad facts about modern movie goers is the overemphasis they put on the role of the film director. They are quick to praise or criticize him while overlooking the producer is the tall hog at the trough. Kevin Feige enjoys gambling with talent, and bringing in people working outside their comfort zones for what they can bring to a standard issue film. For this, he brought in James Gunn as director and writer. The two key entries on Gunn's resume are that he has a Troma alum (he helped script Tromeo And Juliet and Toxic Avenger IV) and he's also a cartoonist. The result of this mentality is a movie that is very lean, no fat to it. Everyone seems to have some sort of plot or scam going, or a double-cross up their sleeve. This can be exhausting as it can reduce a movie to one plot twist after another, but the center thankfully holds. Once the MacGuffin of the Orb is introduced, the movie floors it and doesn't stop moving for anything other than a quick scene where Quill introduces Gamora to his most prized possession, a Sony Walkman with a tape labeled "Awesome Mix Vol. I" (yes, it survived over twenty years. The tape player is from the days before Sony started making shit). Gunn has crafted a script devoid of slowdown, even when it would serve the plot. When Rocket is hatching his escape plan from the Kyln, his associate Groot thinks he's getting a jump on things and accidentally triggers an action sequence instead of everyone going Solid Snake for a while.
This becomes the movie's greatest strength and the reason it is doing so well -- personality. None of the characters are cyphers, they have clear motivations and thought processes behind what they do. Not only does the plot more or less depend on their actions, but a lot of humor results. Even when you wonder if that really was the best way to depict the character (I'm looking at you, Yondu), it still serves to keep the kinetic plot in motion and, even if it seems odd, it isn't enough to grind things to a halt the way another generic tough guy would.
The standout here is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord. Thanks to a combination of Gunn's screenplay and his own acting, Pratt somehow manages to keep the talking raccoon from pulling focus. Our first introduction to the character is him searching for the Orb while jamming to 70's music on his Walkman -- in reality, he's in a dangerous alien environment, but in his mind, he's on Soul Train. Quill has a silver tongue and uses it better than any movie character since Aladdin and OG Axel Foley. If you are wondering how a regular human can possibly survive in a universe where everyone is automatically more powerful than him, it's his wits, and instead of it feeling manufactured, you can see it happening. (It also helps give the character a sense of jeopardy, since he is always always ALWAYS in danger.)
Zoe Saldana does well as Gamora, and I'm actually glad they painted her green. I'm sorry, but people are lazy with CGI. Practical effects feel more real and in the moment where they can be influenced by the environment and have a presence as a result (see also the Vogons in the H2G2 movie). Although she is still playing the chick you'd like to bang even though she'll probably beat you up instead, there's enough to her that you pull for the character. Dave Bautista doesn't get much character development other than being too literal, and his screen time is limited because of it, but he becomes a wild card, triggering events instead of just tagging along. However, the George and Lenny of Rocket and Groot are fantastic. Rocket could have easily just been the noble asshole. Instead, he's justifiably pissed off, wanting to define himself instead of the universe doing it for him. And Groot makes an excellent foil. There are moments where the plot defies logic. For example, mentioning all the money they can make while surrounded by criminals in Knowhere should have had every thief in the area raiding their ship. And Yondu should have expected Quill to con him at the end. But the movie has such spirit and energy, you just roll with it.
Ultimately, those two elements, the spirit and energy, are the true stars of the movie. In an era of super seriousness, which infected Iron Man 3 and Man Of Steel, GotG knows this is a bunch of bullshit and gleefully embraces its excesses. Other than the opening and big baddie Ronan, the movie doesn't even try to be serious. In the tradition of pulp science fiction, it gives us imagination instead of dry hard science. It gives us a talking raccoon, truly strange new worlds like one built inside a giant head, a talking raccoon, a bamboo flute that can be controlled by whistling, a talking raccoon, Glenn Close in a comic book movie, and a talking raccoon. You want science and logical progression in your plot and world building? Go read Dune again. Otherwise, just settle back with a genuine popcorn flick and have a good time.
(By the way, I'm not going to mention the surprise cameo in the stinger. Usually, my likelihood of using spoilers goes up in relation to how well the movie does -- after all, if everyone's talking about it, there's no reason to be coy. But not this time, I just don't have it in me. The guy I was sitting next to and I actually high fived each other. Here's what you need to know -- I have always said Seth Green is a professional scene stealer. And he does it again.)