Thursday, April 07, 2011

In Theaters: Rango

Rango poster and IMPAwards link
Rango starts off with the main character engaging in a one-man show and delivering a highly theatrical, slightly psychedelic monologue wondering about his true identity. That is our first sign that this is not a typical animated family adventure. The components of the movie are familiar, but writer John Logan and director Gore Verbinski have done something special with them, creating a picture that’s part parody of spaghetti westerns, part mystical vision quest, and part witty comedy adventure.

Johnny Depp plays the title role, as Rango is what he comes to call himself. At first he’s a nameless chameleon accidentally thrown out of his tank and cast onto a desert highway. He treks across the hostile landscape before stumbling upon the Old West-y town of Dirt, a village straight out of Sergio Leone with a grizzled populace and a severe water shortage. The chameleon decides to blend in, getting the moniker “Rango” off a bottle of cactus juice and talking himself up as the most brutal, stone cold killer in the West. This gets him made lawman, just in time to tangle with hawks, lizard gangsters, and a monstrous serpent known as Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy). Along the way he romances the fiery and eccentric Beans (Isla Fisher), and discovers that there’s something very suspicious about what’s happened to the water supply.

You’ve heard this story before, probably. It’s a little bit like Three Amigos, or Chicken Run, or A Bug’s Life, but the plotting, while it holds together, isn’t really the point. The film, instead, is a lot more interested in directly engaging the themes a story like this brings up. Rango is a performer, an artist, but also kind of a blank slate, and enters into his charade less out of a desire to fit other’s expectations than a desire to actually become somebody. It’s telling that the character has no name until he gives himself one, and that he spends much of the opening scenes in the desert trying to blend in one way or another. The film’s surreal opening is paired with an equally bizarre, elaborate dream sequence later which hammers home the character’s identity crisis, and which leads to an utterly wonderful scene of Rango confronting the true Spirit of the West (about whom I shall say very little, save that he is voiced by Timothy Olyphant.)

The animation, done by Industrial Light and Magic (this is their first animated feature), is something else. The lizards and vermin of Dirt have skin so detailed you can almost touch them, and a subtlety of expression that holds through many close-ups, which is what the genre calls for. There are some amazing tricks of light and shadow, and a look that’s gritty and also colorful. I don’t normally look too much at the technical aspects of a movie, let alone the animation, but Rango is such a visual marvel that it has to be noted. On top of this, Verbinski’s grasp of action has grown a lot stronger, and there are some genuinely thrilling as well as comical sequences.

Also serving the story well is a wry and rather dark sense of humor. In some ways it’s a film for older kids, with touches of violence, innuendo, and a more direct confrontation of death than you normally see in animated features. The script is witty and often fast-talking. The voice cast worked closely together during recording to create a believable rapport, and it helps that the casting is as inspired as it is; turns from Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Abigail Breslin, Claudia Black, Ray Winstone, and Stephen Root among others all fit in so well that it’s actually hard to recognize most of them.

It’s good to be genuinely surprised by a movie now and then, especially if it’s not because of what happens but because of how it’s done. Rango could easily have been one of many animated pictures crowding the marketplace, but instead you get the feeling that Verbinski, Logan, and company used whatever clout they had to tell the story they wanted to tell the way they wanted to tell it. It’s bold and striking, but it’s also fun. It delivers what we expect from an animated feature- laughs, thrills, a message about being true to those who depend on you- but also more, offering kids and adults a little to think about. This is a really fun movie that goes that extra step, and as I’ve said before, we need more like that.

Story by John Logan, Gore Verbinski, and James Ward Byrkit
Screenplay by John Logan
Directed by Gore Verbinski

Grade: A-

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