Not every gag in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy works, and there are some bits in the middle where it kind of drags. Apart from that, it does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of Douglas Adams’s books in a big-screen form. Twitchy yet relaxed, manic yet droll, the Hitchhiker’s series on radio and in books (I haven’t seen the TV miniseries) are sort of the artistic equivalent of a really bright kid with ADD that everyone’s afraid to medicate for fear that he’ll lose his spark, in spite of the big messes he makes all over the place. The film continues in this line, making the transition to a more visual medium by replacing some of the novels’ logorrheic verbal digressions with arch visual gags.

Luckily, they didn’t completely do away with the digressions. The Guide itself makes numerous appearances, its entries illustrated in a flat, silhouettish style of animation (by Shynola) that suggests that Flash is as predominant in outer space as it is here on Earth. Director Garth Jennings came up through the ranks of music videos, and Spike Jonze gets a “special thanks” credit, so it’s not completely surprising that outside of the guide and some of the bigger, outer-spacier effects, much of the film has a kitschy, underproduced feel to it. The way to get out of the unending spiral of special effects that get more alienating as they get more impressive (oh yeah, there’s another Star Wars movie coming out soon) is apparently to just rewind the style clock and mix puppets (by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, natch), stock film footage, and people wearing silly costumes in with the slick CG graphics.

There’s more to a movie than effects, though: the cast is also excellent. Martin Freeman’s Arthur Dent is as put-upon as his character on The Office, but here he actually gets to speak up in his own defense. Sam Rockwell and Mos Def play Zaphod and Ford as two sides of an insane coin, one bursting with Elvisian self-satisfaction, the other so thoroughly unflappable that you start to wonder whether he’s not a bit simple. Zooey Deschanel nails Trillian, which may be the trickiest role of all, managing to be spacy, (outer)worldly, and thoroughly human all at once. It doesn’t hurt that she has a face that’s built for the big screen, all wide eyes and open expressions. Supporting voice work by Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, and Helen Mirren is high-quality.

And when you get down to it, the entire movie could have been crap and I wouldn’t have cared, because the sequences of the Infinite Improbability Drive at work are some of the best things my eyes have ever had the pleasure of seeing. It’s absolutely nothing like what I imagined when I was reading the books as a kid, but it’s immeasurably better.