SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (PG)
117 minutes/Now showing/4 stars
The story: In this version of the Spider-Man universe, gifted teen Mile Morales (Shameik Moore) is bitten by a radioactive spider and has to overcome his fears to take on the villain Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has created a weapon that opens paths to alternate dimensions. Joining him are other Spider-Men, accidentally pushed into his dimension because of the weapon. They include the anime school girl version Peni Parker, the kid's cartoon Spider-Ham, the brooding Spider-Noir and Peter B. Parker, a version of the hero who has let himself go to seed.
Ever since 2002's Spider-Man set the bar for fun and action so high, later films based on the web-slinger's adventures have tried, and mostly failed, to capture the same sparkle.
Who knew that the work that would come closest to capturing the first film's clarity and playfulness would be one which went all the way back to the hero's first format, comic books?
The film's dazzling visual style draws heavily from the aesthetic language of the books, from wiggly lines around the head to indicate a tingling Spider sense, to the written sound effects (the "Aaaa!" when Miles falls from a building). Most of all, the comics are carried over in the framing. In Spider-Man's world, up, down, right and left are fluid concepts.
Nobody has ever regretted giving the duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller a free hand in writing, producing or directing. Here, Lord is director and has penned the screenplay, while Miller is a producer.
The pair behind the hit The Lego Movie (2014) deploy their extraordinary ability to use action to convey information, rather than just use it for spectacle. Fights happen because someone is trying to stop someone else from carrying out a goal. For example, Kingpin preventing the Spider-Men from shutting down his dimension portal.
Lord and Miller in fact use action the way other film-makers use dialogue. In one scene, Miles "tags" or sprays graffiti in an abandoned subway station wall with his uncle, Aaron (voiced by Mahershala Ali). That scene becomes a music video, one that speaks to Miles' love of art and New York City, and how much he loves uncle Aaron.
This movie is dense, not just with characters, but with jokes both visual and spoken (in one throwaway line, Spider-Ham uses a Warner Bros cartoon catchphrase, then wonders how he was legally allowed to get away with it). Add the notion of heroes from other dimensions, and how Miles uses Spider-Man comics as self-help books, and one only starts to grasp just how mind-bendingly innovative it is.
One hopes that this bold, cheeky take gives courage to the makers of the live-action versions of Marvel heroes, to go in the same fresh, challenging direction as this "kid-friendly" movie.
Watch the trailer for Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tg52up16eq0