Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Photo: Marvel)

★★★ (out of four)
STARS Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana

That scene at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy? That part where Baby Groot dances whenever Drax isn’t looking and freezes whenever the big guy turns around? That moment seemingly adored by everyone ranging from Vladimir Putin to Pope Francis? Yeah, no. Call me a Scrooge of the cinematic set, but this whole bit was a tad too precious for my liking – it had a whiff of the Ewok about it.

Fears that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 would be nothing but two hours of Baby Groot gurgling and gyrating kept me awake for nights on end and had me frequently reaching for the bottle, so imagine my relief (and sobriety) to discover that this sequel to the 2014 smash not only keeps Baby Groot fairly in line but also employs him in clever and amusing ways. It’s part and parcel of the entire project, which suffers from occasional overkill yet mostly refrains from allowing excessive bloat to cripple its potential.

As expected, the entire gang is back, with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) enjoying their newfound status as celestial celebrities. But after ticking off the members of a powerful race, the heroes-for-hire find themselves on the run, with Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Quill’s mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker) forced to join the motley crew along the way. Half of the gang end up on a planet alongside Peter’s long-lost father Ego (Kurt Russell) and his servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff); the others find themselves held prisoner after a mutiny by Yondu’s Ravagers.

The star warriors

The jokey demeanor that informed the first picture remains, even if writer-director James Gunn forces too many gags. And as is the case with many superhero sagas, this one doesn’t know when to quit, with a generous 136-minute running time mostly felt during the CGI-choked finale. But the freshness of the characters remains intact, and the actors continue to interact in an effortless manner that supports the story’s narrative spine involving the notion that family – no matter how one defines it – always comes first (in this respect, the series has much in common with Diesel’s other, similarly fast and furious franchise).

Interestingly, this thematic strand isn’t at its strongest in the showcase relationship between Ego and Peter (though Russell and Pratt are certainly convincing as père et fil). Instead, the touching moments come from the bonds between sisters Gamora and Nebula and especially between adoptive father Yondu and Peter. Gunn’s scripting and Gillan’s performance bring unexpected poignancy to the part of Nebula, while Rooker’s excellent turn allows Yondu to emerge as the most unexpectedly complex character in the story. True, Yondu may not be as cute or as cuddly as Baby Groot, but he’s ultimately the one whose arc takes root in our collective consciousness.

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