"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" reps the long-planned movie version of Douglas Adams' cult story of interstellar hitchhikers. Pic remains more smile-inducing than laugh-aloud funny and has pacing and coherence problems. Thankfully, strong visuals and sight gags punch up the package, and high public awareness of the brand name should ensure a robust opening in Blighty.

Whimsical, low-tech and doggedly British in tone despite Tinseltown touches, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” reps the long-planned movie version of scribe Douglas Adams’ cult story of interstellar hitchhikers. Inheriting baggy source material, talky pic remains more smile-inducing than laugh-aloud funny and has pacing and coherence problems. Thankfully, strong visuals and sight gags punch up the package, and high public awareness of the brand name should ensure a robust opening in Blighty and other Commonwealth countries. Stateside, however, pic will need to thumb a ride on upbeat word of mouth to catch on theatrically. Home format afterlife looks heavenly.

Having been a radio show, a 1981 TV series, and several bestselling novels, Adams’ epic is an established property with an intense following among those who appreciate its unique combo of “Monty Python”-style silliness, self-mocking satire of Brit manners, and Sci-Fi for Beginners that goes whizzing off in all directions.

Its core narrative is not so much a shaggy dog story as it is a litter of straggly-maned pups. Script credited to Adams, who died in 2001 at age 49, and Karey Kirkpatrick (“Chicken Run”) deserves kudos for adept wrangling of the first novel’s fitful plot and many digressions into a semi-lucid storyline that’s largely faithful to original’s spirit.

In contempo rural England, morose hero Arthur Dent (a well-cast Martin Freeman, from the original U.K. “The Office”) is awoken one morning by bulldozers about to destroy his house for a freeway bypass. However, his best friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def), reveals more shocking news: First, that he, Prefect, is actually an alien from outer space, and second, that Earth is about to be destroyed by the Vogons, a race of repulsive bureaucratic aliens (marvelous-looking leathery puppets designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop), who are making way for a hyperspace bypass.

Prefect’s real job is as a researcher for the universal bestseller “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” This is a sort of souped-up Tablet computer/encyclopedia, whose entries and stories are unspooled as stylized, 2-D animations throughout with clipped accompanying voiceover by Brit thesp Stephen Fry.

Using the Guide and a special hitchhiker’s ring, Prefect and Dent stow away aboard a Vogon ship seconds before Earth goes kerblooey. They then escape Vogon torture-by-poetry by hitching another ride on the Heart of Gold, a passing space vessel manned by Prefect’s cousin, the galaxy’s smarmy but charming two-headed, three-armed president, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell).

Also aboard the Heart of Gold are: Earth girl Trillian, aka Tricia MacMillan (Zooey Deschanel), whom Dent had once fallen in love with at a London party just before Beeblebrox whisked her off; and Marvin the Paranoid Android (diminutive Warwick Davis in robot suit, voice by Alan Rickman), a lugubrious, mechanical passive-aggressive whose morose line in self-pity reaps some of pic’s biggest laughs.

With the characters thus established, the crew goes off adventuring in a rather messy mass of subplots. Some of these will make better sense to fans familiar with the original material, such as the Guide’s crucial skit about a supercomputer (voiced by Helen Mirren).

However, fans may not be so pleased with a love-triangle subplot — between Beeblebrox, Trillian and Dent — that’s been invented for the movie. This was presumably designed to make the nerdy, male-skewed original more appealing to distaff auds. When Trillian is eventually captured by the Vogons, who wrongly believe she’s kidnapped Beeblebrox, Dent leads a rescue mission that succeeds because he understands the fine British art of “queuing,” aka getting in line.

Seg in which Dent & Co. must fill out a Vogon form in triplicate and return repeatedly to the hatch of a bored female Vogon pen-pusher to secure a repeal of Trillian’s death sentence encapsulates pic’s offbeat Brit humor at its best. Here, the universe is imagined as a kind of vast equivalent of Blighty — or, rather, the country as it thought of itself in the late ’70s-early ’80s. Though the place is riddled by bureaucracy, inefficiency, and a service culture that doesn’t quite work, politeness is still maintained, even by a voicemail message that informs the caller, “Your death may be monitored for training purposes.”

However, in pic’s midsection, the pace becomes somewhat sluggish due to an overload of asides from the Guide — pure Adams material that will please fans but which sounds less funny onscreen than on the printed page. In an effort to up the laugh count, first-time feature helmer Garth Jennings inserts some cute slapstick biz.

Surfaces of sets and costumes are so intricately tricked out that they almost distract from comprehension of what’s going on, as in a cameo appearance by a digitally-enhanced John Malkovich as a half-man, half-mechanical preacher alien (another of the script’s inventions).

Nor does it help that some of the cast, particularly Def and Deschanel as Prefect and Trillian, look lost in space without direction, and phone in underwhelming perfs. Still, Rockwell’s manic gurning as Beeblebrox, and the smattering of veteran Brit thesps in minor roles (particularly Bill Nighy as a planet designer specializing in fjords), makes up for some of the shortfall.

Decision to go more for lower-budget special effects, favoring puppets and plasticine instead of CGI, pays dividends, adding a nostalgic, old-school feel that harks back to the original, on-the-cheap TV series, as well as to vintage “Dr. Who.” Relatively small amount of CGI is used with precision — to create Beeblebrox’s second head or vast, thoughtfully designed sets.

Other tech credits hold their own, although sound was initially muddy at screening caught.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

U.S.- U.K

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures, Spyglass Entertainment presentation of a Barber Birnbaum, Everyman Pictures (U.S.A)/Hammer & Tongs (U.K.) production. Produced by Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Nick Goldsmith, Jay Roach, Jonathan Glickman. Executive producers, Douglas Adams, Robbie Stamp, Derek Evans. Co-producers, Todd Arnow, Caroline Hewitt, Rebekah Rudd. Directed by Garth Jennings. Screenplay, Douglas Adams, Karey Kirkpatrick, based on the novel by Adams.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Igor Jadue-Lillo; editor, Niven Howie; music, Joby Talbot; production designer, Joel Collins; supervising art director, Frank Walsh; costume designer, Sammy Sheldon; sound mixer (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS Digital), Mark Holding; supervising sound editor, Ian Wilson; visual effects supervisors, Angus Bickerton, Adam McInnes, Matt Johnson, Sue Rowe, Cinesite (Europe) Ltd.; creature effects, Jim Henson's Creature Shop; animated guide, Shynola; assistant director, Richard Whelan; stunt co-ordinator, Jim Dowdall; casting, Susie Figgis. Reviewed at UCI Empire Leicester Square, London, April 13, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Arthur Dent - Martin Freeman Ford Prefect - Mos Def Zaphod Beeblebrox - Sam Rockwell Trillian - Zooey Deschanel Marvin - Warwick Davis Voice of Marvin - Alan Rickman Humma Kavula - John Malkovich Slartibartfast - Bill Nighy Eddie the Computer - Thomas Lennon Voice of Deep Thought - Helen Mirren
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