Thursday, January 19, 2012

Rango Movie Review

I think Gore Verbinski has found his true calling as a director. I don’t know why I didn’t see it from the Pirate of the Caribbean movies, but he is most suited to directing animated adventures. After all, the exploits of Captain Jack Sparrow are nothing but cartoon action using live actors amid a whole bunch of CGI. But last year’s Rango, Verbinski’s first stab at an animated feature, is a marvelous little gem of a movie.

Johnny Depp gives full life and voice to the title character, a chameleon who gets lost in the desert and unwittingly becomes sheriff to a dying town replete with rats, muskrats, lizards, tortoises and other desert vermin. It begins with Rango staging heroic plays and tableaux with literally lifeless supporting characters. This is because he’s a pet in a diorama being transported by car along the highway. It suddenly occurs to him that in order for his stories to be more interesting, to give his eponymous hero more depth of character, there needs to be an ironic twist that flings his protagonist into an unexpected situation. Then what do you know? His cubicle home gets flung from the car and smashes on the highway leaving him to fend for himself in the desert.


Like most animated films these days, it’s computer animated with non-human characters. As far as I know this is Nickelodeon Studios’ first computer animated film since Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Boy have they come a long way, although Industrial Light and Magic is primarily responsible for the animation this time. Still, great animation is nothing without a good story and screenplay to support it. And this story by Verbinski, John Logan and James Ward Byrkit with a screenplay by Logan (who also recently gave us Hugo) is the stuff that Western heroes’ dreams are made of. In Rango’s first 20 minutes lost in The West he makes a daring escape from one of the many hazards in the world, meets a no-nonsense female lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher), tells wild tales of his fictional exploits as a gunslinger, meets the Mayor of Dirt (Ned Beatty) and gets appointed sheriff. Not bad for a day’s work.

If I had to guess, I’d say Verbinski, Logan and Byrkit have studied the Pixar oeuvre to get a feel for the cadence and timing of adult-oriented jokes and references. As with Pixar’s films, these things will fly over the kids’ heads, but then with its depictions of smoking and the occasional character death and some colorful language, Rango isn’t an all-ages family film anyway. It will most appeal to aficionados of the western genre, particularly spaghetti westerns and Clint Eastwood. References, some general and many specific, abound. To begin with there’s Hans Zimmer’s exciting score that calls to mind just about every western you’ve ever seen without outright stealing from other composers. Then there are the moments that could be out of any western like when Rango orders a water in the saloon to the jeers of all the other patrons or the clock tower that strikes high noon and signals an impending gunfight. There’s also the real Injun character Wounded Bird, who speaks in the stereotypical broken English, two or three word sentences prevalent in old westerns. The coup de grace however if the appearance of the Spirit of the West coming in the form of none other than the Man with No Name and voiced by Timothy Olyphant doing a convincing enough Eastwood that I had to check the credits to be sure.

The animation too is on a par with the incredible rendering that Pixar has achieved in recent years. The amphibian and reptile characters have beautiful almost tangible texture to their skin. Especially good is the universally feared black hat villain Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy, relishing every slithery word he utters). Then there are the furry friends with almost photorealistic hair. It’s the sand and water that most captured my attention. The detail in terms of the granular qualities of the desert sand and the way it pours from a bottle demonstrates probably years of high quality production. The water, which is central to the plot, is equally impressive in the way it flows.

You see, the town of Dirt is desperate for water. There’s none flowing, Beans is about to lose her father’s ranch if she doesn’t get some, and the bank is near run dry (literally). Rango promises the townspeople he will get their water back. “Whoever controls the water, controls everything,” the Mayor tells him. When you realize that with his hat and suspenders, the Mayor looks an awful lot like Noah Cross and that this is a story about water being siphoned off, you should have a pretty good idea who’s responsible. And if you’re completely baffled by what I just wrote, then nothing’s been spoiled. If you know who Noah Cross is, then you’ll get it as quickly as I did watching the movie and I’ve still spoiled nothing.

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