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Rango A Beautiful Homage to Westerns…And Other Genres

Directed by Gore Verbinski
Written by John Logan from a story by Logan, Verbinski, and James Ward Byrkit
Paramount, 2011

Over the past few years we’ve seen an evolution in computer animation where shading has become more important to the look of the film.  Most computer-animated cartoons have that shiny-toy look that has dominated the form since the original Toy Story, and in effect has been missing some of those details we humans like to see to better connect to the real world.  So movies like Happy Feet, and two films advised by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, WALL-E and How to Train Your Dragon, have ushered in a new look for animated movies that you know are taking it seriously.  Rango is the latest of these that, at the very least, even if you don’t like the movie, you have to be impressed with the effort.  I ended up liking Rango a great deal.

Rango is an homage to Westerns and, also, Chinatown.  And Three Amigos.  It’s a PG movie with lots of stuff for kids, but it appears to be aimed at adults.  You’ll hear a “damn” and a “hell” and see a reference to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Timothy Olyphant voices “The Spirit of the West,” which is really just an animated Clint Eastwood.  Olyphant does a crazy good Eastwood.

Rango concerns a pet lizard (Johnny Depp) who has been dreaming up scenarios in his little aquarium and one day finds himself free…but in a soul-zapping desert.  He makes his way into a small town populated by animals, and is the late 1800’s old west that we know from the movies.  That’s sort of a fun thing to remember when watching Rango: it’s set in the present day, but the animals are living in a condition that is a little over a hundred years behind our time.  He meets a girl lizard (Isla Fisher) who takes him into the town.  Rango, to try to fit in and generally not get messed with, enters a saloon and is soon boasting about his exploits where he killed seven brothers with one bullet.  Much like the Brothers Grimm story “Seven at One Blow” that was later turned into a Mickey Mouse cartoon, “The Brave Little Tailor.”

Rango’s cowardly run from a hawk that terrorizes the town ends up killing the hawk, and the town believes they’ve found a hero that can protect them.  He’s made sheriff.  We find out there’s a water shortage in the town.  The wheelchair-bound mayor (Ned Beatty) says curious things like, “If you control the water, you control everything.”  Water is kept in a bank, but it’s getting low, and then the huge water jug that contains the water is stolen.  Rango continues the subterfuge, trying to track down the potential thieves, but as always in movies, finds that things aren’t what they seem.  An evil rattlesnake named Jake (Bill Nighy), free to visit the town now that the hawk is gone, is inevitably going to make an appearance.

There are a few things to point out right off that make this cartoon different from others.  First, the voice actors.  In addition to those mentioned above, we have Stephen Root, Abigail Breslin (as the precocious little girl), Alfred Molina, Ray Winstone, Harry Dean Stanton, and Blake Clark.  No one is really doing their voice in most instances.  Depp changes his voice to do a character, the Aussie Fisher, doing a Western twang, is unrecognizable.  You might well ask why the filmmakers didn’t just get cheaper voice actors if that was the case, but I’m sure the name recognition was what the studio wanted, but voice non-recognition was what director Gore Verbinski wanted.  That can be distracting a lot of times, when you’re trying to figure out who is behind the animated creature instead of listening to what they say.

It’s also not 3D.  It seems, in fact, to be gloriously defiant of 3D.

And it’s written by John Logan.  He’s been nominated for two Oscars, one for The Aviator and another for Gladiator.  It’s rare you see a guy like that write for a cartoon.

Hans Zimmer also plays the homage game, mostly to Ennio Morricone, who has composed some of the most famous scores in film history (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly gets the homage treatment here).

Verbinski has a varied filmography.  He’s best known for the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, one was good, the other two were horrible, but they made tons of money.  Keeping with the tons of money theme, he did the Japanese horror remake The Ring. He also did the underrated The Weather Man, an actually good Nicolas Cage movie.  Then you have the Julia Roberts/Brad Pitt misfire The Mexican and a strange little family movie called Mousehunt that had to compete against Titanic back in December of 1997.  Despite an uneven career, I can tell he’s got a filmmaker’s mind, and Rango is chock full of technique and consideration that you don’t see in most films.

On the whole, this movie isn’t perfect by any means.  Its style and its thoughtful approach trumps its substance, but there is so much style, and so much to its approach, and just enough substance, that it is an overall entertaining film worth giving a look.

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