“SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE” — 3½ stars — Voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Chris Pine, Mahershala Ali; PG (frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements and mild language); in general release; running time: 117 minutes
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” probably shouldn’t be the first “Spider-Man” movie you see, but it’s likely the only one you must see, and it might be the best animated feature of the year.
“Into the Spider-Verse” passes the web-slinging torch from Peter Parker to a Brooklyn teen named Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore). The movie is set 10 years after Parker (Chris Pine) began his crime-fighting duties as a teen, and we meet him at the height of his powers, battling familiar foes like Green Goblin (Jorma Taccone) and Kingpin (Live Schreiber).
Miles, on the other hand, is just trying to survive his teenage years — which at the moment involves getting used to a brand new school and the ever-present gaze of his overprotective police officer father (Brian Tyree Henry).
During a night out with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), Miles gets bit by a rather familiar radioactive spider and winds up with so many new powers he wonders if he’s going through a second bout of puberty.
It isn’t long, though, before he puts those powers to good use. When Kingpin’s doomsday particle collider rips a hole in the space-time continuum and sidelines Spider-Man, Miles has to step up and defend the city from potential catastrophe.
Lucky for Miles, he won’t be fighting Kingpin alone. The collider’s first test just happened to have brought a group of Spider-People from alternate dimensions to Brooklyn, and the group teams up with Miles in the hopes that defeating Kingpin will help get them home.
One of the alternate-universe Spideys vying for our attention is a slightly older and pudgier Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), whose dad-bod is a nice foil for the sleek, brooding black-and-white Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage). Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) and Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) represent two more extreme animation styles, and in a fun twist, one of Miles’ classmates — Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) — also turns out to be an interdimensional spider-powered hero.
It’s all a little complicated, and if you don’t already have a working understanding of the Spider-Man mythos, it might take some effort to get caught up (the film itself seems to be aware of this and strains to help the audience follow its story with periodic exposition breaks).
Technically speaking, “Into the Spider-Verse” is not explicitly connected to the current Tom Holland storyline that left off in last spring’s “Infinity War” — though it is Marvel-approved. “Into the Spider-Verse” is more of a tribute to the Spider-Man universe in general, and comic fans will likely appreciate the results.
Still, all the story is just icing on a fantastic visual cake. Helmed by a trio of credited directors, “Into the Spider-Verse” looks, in an appropriate word, amazing. It comes off as a fascinating blend of CGI and traditional cell animation that is a perfect translation from a comic book. That said, it doesn’t feel corny or forced or gimmicky. It’s 100 percent unique and 100 percent worth seeing in the theater. It even looks 3D without having to use those annoying glasses.
“Into the Spider-Verse” is also a family-friendly straight-PG movie. It’s got plenty of action and mayhem — but none of the kind of content that its PG-13 rated superhero peers are known for. Just make sure the kids have a quick rundown of Spider-Man basics beforehand and this one will make for a great family outing.
Rating explained: "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" draws a soft PG rating for animated superhero mayhem and action.