Sunday, March 6, 2011

Rango - Theatrical Review

Release Date: March 4, 2011

I honestly wasn't holding out any hope for this film. I had tired of Johnny Depp's looney shtick long ago and the last thing I wanted was another animated comedy/family film with lots of off the wall characters that constantly made either pop culture references or the occasional fart to elicit a laugh. Color me shocked then that Rango is not only none of that but it is also my favorite film of the year so far.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 3:30 pm March 5, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D

Loves: Johnny Depp, Westerns, Hans Zimmer's music
Likes: Gore Verbinski, animated films for adults
Neutral: Western cliches
Hates: Nothing actually
Relieved: That they didn't release this in 3D

Director Gore Verbinski hasn't made very many films ( he hasn't even reached the double digits yet) but he may be one of the very few recent cases where quality makes up for the lack of quantity. He has made the definitive J-Horror remake with The Ring and shortly after that gave us the definitive pirate movie with The Pirates of the Caribbean (the sequels not withstanding). Now he has seen fit to tackle the animated world with his Pirates cohort Johnny Depp in tow. While I can't say he has made the definitive animated movie per say, that honor is still held by the immortal Pixar folks, he has made in my humble opinion the definitive animated WESTERN movie.

Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) is a lizard, a lizard that has been locked up in his very very small world for way way too long. When we first meet him he is in the middle of putting on a Theater Play with his good friends the wind up fish, the dead cricket and his girlfriend the (almost) limbless barbie doll. It is clear from the get go that he not only has a very active imagination, which will save him and ultimately hurt him later, but also a yearning to be a hero. A hero of what though...that is the question that he poses to himself actually and just when he thinks he has the answer he is cast out into the barren desert after a series of unfortunate circumstances.

Rango learns quickly he kind of stands out and not in a good way.

Being a pet lizard with no survival skills whatsoever, he can't even blend with his environment, the desert isn't very kind to him. After a run in with the resident killer hawk and a couple of locals he finds himself in the aptly named town of Dirt. Using that active imagination of his he gets himself in over his head in no time flat and soon is facing off in a duel with the towns premiere gunslingers. As things often happen with Rango, he not only comes through on all his tall tales but also becomes the hero of the town after taking down a giant pest that has plagued it and the people living there for some time. The next thing you know Rango is now the Sheriff of Dirt and finds himself tasked with the one sole purpose of protecting the the towns water source. What do you think the chances are that something bad is gonna happen to that water?

You know, it isn't until a director of one particular medium steps in and tries their hand at a completely different medium that you notice how routine those other films (well made films mind you) are. Gore Verbinski brings with him a unique eye for how to compose his shots and frame what we see on screen. I am gonna be completely honest, it didn't really hit me until I saw the name Roger Deakins in the credits whom is among one of the greatest cinematographers in the world today, that there was anything remarkable about how the film looked. But there was definitely something different about it all, everything seemed to move at a more natural pace than your typical animated flick.

There is a new Sheriff in the Town of Dirt...and his name is Rango.

It wasn't just the cinematography though, the mood of the film was also not what I expected. We have come to expect that any animated film that comes out must either be a comedy, a musical, or both. As the world of Japanese animation (anime) has taught me, that is complete nonsense and Rango helps prove that point. While there are some funny bits to be found here for sure along with some instances of wackiness, there wasn't anything that stood out or seemed to be in the film just to get a quick gag or laugh in there. As a matter of fact, there wasn't one moment during the entire film that felt false to me, everything we witness is there to serve the story. And isn't that what a good film is, animated or not? Something that gives us a great story and characters to get wrapped up in.

Oh and the characters, oh my where to start. Strangely, you won't find any one particular character amazing or your favorite. There is no sidekick for Rango, no little creature that seems to be along for the ride to just make the kids happy. Instead we get a town filled with some of the most imaginative looking critters I have seen in a very long time (keep an eye out for the bird with an arrow going through his head). I don't believe I saw one repeat among them and they all have a very real and distinct feel about them. You believe they have lived in this sad town for their entire lives from the moment Rango steps into the local bar. They are all western stereotypes for sure but their look combined with the uniquely western voice actors they got for them all made me look straight past any cliche associated with them. Amongst them are a handful of memorable recurring characters that populate the town of Dirt that helped immensely once you start to get weary of Rango's "wit" or wackiness.

What is a western without a showdown at noon?

You have Beans (voiced by Isla Fischer), the local rancher girl that has caught Rango's eye. She is the only main female in the entire film and thankfully she is a worthy one. Then you have the mayor of Dirt who is this crippled turtle (voiced by Ned Beaty) that scoots around everywhere in a wheel chair while in only half of his shell. The two main villains are the local gunslinger Bad Bill (voiced by Ray Winstone) and the gun for hire Rattlesnake Jake (voiced by Bill Nighy) who both do amazing jobs with their voice work here. When Rattlesnake Jake first appears he his every bit as intimidating as all the townsfolk made him out to be, and you just gotta love a snake with a Gatling gun for a stinger. This being an animated film though we have to have at least one cute little critter and that is left to the big eyed possum  Priscilla (voiced by Abigail Breslin) whom exudes adorableness every time she is on screen.

I have one last thing to mention that must not be overlooked and that is the fantastic music score by Hans Zimmer (which I am listening to as I write this). He has really outdone himself here and provided a score worthy of the beautiful and endlessly imaginative images on screen. It is a combination of classical instruments with some banjo and other western themed pieces thrown in. I am not a musician so excuse my amateurish descriptions in this regard but I truly believe half of what made everything gel for me was the score. I could discern pieces of Ennio Morricone as well as some rapid pace traditional style Mexican cues that was all mixed to perfection. From the narrating mariachi owls to the stirring and sometimes silly pieces of music I was always completely engrossed with what was on screen to the point where I didn't want it to end.

Despite what you might think, there is a bit of mystery to the film.

Now, everything up to this point has only been the pieces. The real question is do those pieces come together to make a complete whole? A resounding yes would suffice I suppose. It has been quite a while where I didn't find one thing that I would have any different. All those pieces come together to make one of the best westerns and animated films I have seen in many years. It is obvious from minute one that Gore Verbinski and his creative team have a special kind of love and affinity for the genre. With their unique vision on how to bring it to the screen you can tell every inch of what we see has been labored over by masters of the craft. You can tell by how he stages every moment of the film, it is all very familiar and somewhat cliche but this is clearly a love letter and something that he was very passionate about (which is made abundantly clear with an inspired cameo later in the film). Like I mentioned before, its pace is very methodical for an animated film but that is what the genre calls for and instead of doing quick cuts or edits for the impatient younger viewers he makes sure that every frame of every shot is meticulously laid out so he can drain every ounce of atmosphere he can from it.

And I for one applaud him for it, but I don't think that others will. It always seems to happen to the ones that try to break the boundaries (Pixar's Wall-E had a similar fate even with being a box office success). It all comes back to the idea that an animated "family" film MUST be funny or it will fail. While I can't say for certain that this will happen to Rango, the theater was mighty empty when I saw it though, but anybody going to see this expecting big laughs like they get from other animated films or hell, even from the Pirates series is going to be sorely disappointed. A family member of mine that attended the film with me said she hated it because it just wasn't funny like the previews made it out to be. How can you argue against that...? That is what she expected and it wasn't funny, it was a western with almost no laugh out loud moments. You can't tell someone to like it because it did what it did well. It didn't do what SHE was expecting it to do well and that is the problem.

The fearful Rattlesnake Jake comes to town to meet the new Sheriff.

I know I have done nothing but throw heaping amounts of praise at the film through all of this. You might be thinking to yourself that there had to be something that irked me or got under my skin, right? Well OK then, I will satisfy your curiosity and give a couple of insights into what I thought stood out as needing some work. First is the whole Johnny Depp thing, his Rango is a dead ringer for a sober Jack Sparrow. The character's animations and Depp's lingo reminded me constantly of the dear Captain and while that might be a good thing for most (I heard that those pirate flicks have got some fans), personally it started to wear on me near the end. The other thing is unfortunately something that comes with the territory of doing an homage or just working in an overstuffed genre like the western and that is the cliches. In a nutshell Rango is about a stranger that comes to a wore down town being run by corrupt officials where he must overcome the odds and save the day. Typical...yes,, well made...hell yes!

Being original is definitely a plus but my favorite movie of all time is a sequel so that should help end that argument. It is all about how the story is told in the end and Rango is a very well told and immensely entertaining piece of cinematic art that is well worth anyone's time that wants to experience filmmaking at its best. Like usual I have neglected to even mention the quality of the animation but like always, does it really matter anymore? I will say that Verbinski and crew did some really great things with the lighting that made it feel almost lifelike at times which was kind of scary...until you realize they are talking animals and then everything is OK again. So yes, Rango is a lovingly crafted homage to the western genre while also giving us some great characters, an amazing musical score and it is all served with a slight bit of wackiness to help it go down.  I give Rango a full fledged endorsement, see it now or forever hold your peace.



Unknown said...

This movie looked really funny from the trailer. I'm gonna try and see it this weekend. =)

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