So it took a quarter of a century. They got it right: the movie version of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” should delight the many fans of its earlier incarnations as a radio show, a novel and a television series.
It might even win over its creator, the late Douglas Adams, who began it all on radio in the late 1970s and wrote the screenplay that served as the basis for the movie. He died four years ago, while the project was still going through a two-decades-long struggle to find a major-studio backer.
Disney eventually gave it the green light and rather miraculously made all the right moves: finding a young and savvy director (Garth Jennings), hiring the gifted Karey Kirkpatrick (“Chicken Run”) to polish Adams’ script, then casting a group of actors who may have zero marquee value but couldn’t be more appropriate for their roles.
Martin Freeman plays the gloriously ordinary hero, Arthur Dent, a stubborn Brit who’s prepared to lie down in front of bulldozers to save his house from being demolished for a highway project. Mos Def is his friend, Ford Prefect, an alien who tries to alert Arthur to the fact that considerably more than his house is in danger of being obliterated.
Sam Rockwell plays the two-headed, cheerfully irresponsible egomaniac, Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Zooey Deschanel is Trillian (aka Trisha McMillan), the almost-lost love of Arthur’s life. Bill Nighy has a wonderfully goofy featured role, while Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman provide the voices for, respectively, the ultra-patient “Deep Thought” and Marvin the permanently depressed robot.
All of the original’s essential elements are in place: the demented space-opera plot (which is like “Star Wars” turned on its head), the philosophical teases (is “42” truly the meaning of life?), the merciless satire of religious rituals (John Malkovich makes the most of his cameo as a manipulative high priest), and the sophomoric silliness that’s built into every logic-defying plot twist.
The low-rent special effects that limited the television series have been replaced by visuals that aren’t only state-of-the-art; they establish a through-the-looking-glass sense of fantasy that’s essential to the story. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop came up with the Vogons, an impossibly ugly race of monsters who use poetry to torment their victims.
The most inspired touch arrives early: a musical number for dolphins who try to warn the human race that their planet is about to be destroyed. The warnings, of course, are misinterpreted, but not before the dolphins have delivered a fondly choreographed farewell to the planet, which they thank for “all the fish.”
Also inspired is the use of animated illustrations that wittily make the most of Adams’ digressions and explanations, which could so easily have jammed the movie with needless exposition. They’re always welcome, always funny, and they’re over so quickly you’re never worried about getting back to the story. For those who sit through the lengthy closing credits, there’s one more of these mini-cartoons, and it’s definitely worth the wait.