A film review by Craig J. Koban March 18, 2011
2011, PG, 107 mins.
2011, PG, 107 mins.
With the voices of:
I usually lament when film critics engage in semi-hyperbolic descriptions of films like, for instance, you’ve never seen anything like it. Yet, as I left the theatre after viewing RANGO I felt that the overused sentiment perhaps best epitomized director Gore Verbinski’s first foray into computer animated filmmaking.
Just consider, if you will, its eclectic credits: it has the
director and star of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN Trilogy, so to speak;
the screenwriter of THE AVIATOR, THE LAST
SAMURAI, and GLADIATOR; the cinematographer of last year’s TRUE
GRIT and many other Coen Brothers’ classics serving in an
advisory capacity; and animation from a legendary company known more for their
groundbreaking effects in live action films.
All of this…plus
it has story involving a lost chameleon and nods to classic western film
me, you’ve never seen anything quite like RANGO.
The film is a
joyous, colorful, and vivacious triumph on so many levels, the first of
which being that it marks an astounding first effort in the animation
genre for Industrial Light and Magic, and the film is as beautifully lush,
magnificently derailed, and gorgeously crafted as anything in the best of
the Pixar canon. Secondly,
RANGO marks a euphoric break from Hollywood’s annoyingly incessant need
to release seemingly all animated features in 3D (HIP-HIP-HORAY!!), so to
witness the visual pleasures of this film in all of its striking and
sumptuous two-dimensional glory is a real refreshing treat.
Thirdly, RANGO is a devilishly sly and capriciously offbeat love
ballad to moviegoers that love movies, more specifically, the classic
westerns of yesteryear. Very few films – animated or not – are simultaneously as
wonderful to engage in on a visual and satiric level as RANGO, and
how terrific is it for a mainstream animated film to appease the more
shrewd and sophisticated tastes of its adult audience members.
character is a lizard – and quite an ugly and weird looking one at that
– voiced by Johnny Depp with just the right frivolous charm and energy
that makes his most past memorable screen creations linger.
Rango enjoys his carefree life in an aquarium of his human owners,
that is until an accident has his home thrown out of a moving
vehicle where it crashes on the desert highway.
He meets a strange armadillo (the great Alfred Molina) that claims
to be seeking the enigmatic Spirit of the West, but during this time Rango is
nearly plucked from the ground and eaten by a vicious hawk.
To make matters worse, he has no water and he’s in the desert.
The next day he
hooks up with another lizard named Beans (the delightful Isla Fisher), a
rancher’s daughter who decides to take him to the town of Dirt, and it
is at this point where Rango completely leaves his 21st Century life
and enters into the 19th Century Wild West settlement that is populated by
all sorts of dirty, grungy, and unsightly desert critters.
Rango seems to initial fit right in with the other townsfolk and
has a meeting with its mayor (Ned Beatty), who happens to be a
turtle in a mechanized wheelchair. While
in a nearby saloon Rango uses his performance bravado (and considerable
foolishness) to pass himself off as a fearsome, courageous, and tough as
nails gunslinger that is afraid of nothing and nobody.
Of course, Rango is about as dangerous as flattened road kill.
manages to convince most of the residents of Dirt that he is who he claims
to be, especially after one nearly fatal and extremely fortuitous
confrontation with the hawk that previously chased him in the desert (he
accidentally kills him with a water tower he inadvertently caused to
collapse), but all of the eyewitnesses and awestruck by his abilities.
As a result, the mayor appoints Rango as the new sheriff and gives
him the task of finding what happened to the town’s recently stolen
water supply, but it soon becomes clear that both Rango and the town are
in way over their heads when secrets are revealed.
As mentioned, the artistry
on display here is exquisite and extraordinary.
Verbinski has always been noted as a director with an evocative
visual sense, and here he made a wise choice of getting Roger Deakins (who
previously served as a consultant on HOW
TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON) to assist him with given the film a live
action feel for camera setups and compositions (echoing Sergio Leone in
spades) amidst all of the absurd conglomeration of oddball characters.
One element that’s really unique is how the film never attempts
to make any of its personas loveably adorable, toy-ready creations.
Part of what makes this film so delightfully weird is that Rango
and the denizens of Dirt are, at face value, physically unappealing.
They have quirky and giddy personalities and are wildly
caricatured, to be sure, but there is little attempt here to ensure that
they meet the obligatory cuteness factor that most other animated films
stridently adhere to.
For as beautifully
and imaginatively envisioned as RANGO is, it's the film’s unbridled strangeness
– it is, like, potently and unabashedly weird - and cunning sense of
humor that stands out the most. That,
and the fact that the film appreciates the collective movie smarts of its
viewers. Paying loving
homage to great films of the past should not be confused, say, with the
endless pop culture riffing that the SHREK films are know for; RANGO not
only wholeheartedly understands the visual conventions of the western
genre, but it also wisely understands how to dryly comment on the
genre’s conventions as well. Rango
himself – with his twitchy and hyper-anxious inflections – bares more
than a passing resemblance to Don Knotts in THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST.
A machine gun-touting rattlesnake antagonist (voiced with a venomous relish
by Bill Nighy) echoes Lee Van Cleef in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.
The film’s climatic showdown is ripped right out of HIGH NOON.
Hell, there is even a surreal fantasy sequence where Rango comes
across with the apparition of The Man With No Name himself (voiced by
Timothy Olyphant, with an uncanny Eastwoodian timbre) that makes the
film’s adoration with the genre all the more complete.
does not end merely with the western in RANGO: Just consider the mayor of
Dirt, with his white hat, suspenders, and quietly imposing voice that nods
to John Huston’s legendary turn in CHINATOWN.
Then there is a sensationally staged and wondrously executed action
chase sequence that involves large and carnivorous bats swooping in like
attack helicopters at Rango and company to the soundtrack of Ride of the
Valkyries (APOCALYPSE NOW,
anyone?). That stunning scene
also reminded me of the climax of the first STAR
WARS for the way the bats dived into the desert trenches much like
the space ships did in the Death Star’s trenches.
Perhaps RANGO’S most clear cut wink to George Lucas’ sci-fi
film is with the delightful scene in the saloon, where Verbinski lets his
faux-camera pan and linger on all of the creepy and crawly critters, much
Lucas did with his drunken alien patrons that populated STAR WARS' cantina.
Like STAR WARS, RANGO is an endlessly inviting filmgoing
experience for how it draws you in and allows you to lovingly engage in
the details that occupy every corner of the screen.
RANGO is an endlessly smart, rambunctiously funny and entertaining original for the animation genre, one that is long on looks and meticulous workmanship and astonishing for its cheery sense of free abandon as a travelogue through some of the more cherished films of the past. The film does have some issues, though: the plot itself takes a bit too long to find its posture to confidently carry on (the opening third of the film comes off more as creatively amusing vignettes than they do as part of an overarching storyline). RANGO has been described as “kidult” – appeasing both young and old in equal measure, but I would lean more towards its placating of elder viewers. Far, far too many tykes at the screening I attended were squirming, lacking engagement, and asking their generally amused parents too many questions about the film. No doubt, the film’s satiric leanings and cinematic referencing will go completely over child viewers’ heads, but I guess it’s a very minor quibble that adults will find RANGO a much richer and more sneakily appealing experience.
Older viewers will
mark my word, leave the theatre feeling like they’ve never seen
anything like it.