Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Rango: Acting Good, Fighting the Bad and Ugly

Directed By: Gore Verbinski
Written By: John Logan
Starring: (The Voices Of) Johnny Depp, Ilsa Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Timothy Olyphant, and Ned Beatty.
Feature Animation: Industrial Light and Magic, Editor: Craig Wood, Production Designer: Mark McCreery, Original Music: Hans Zimmer
Rated: PG, lots of guns, a few explosions, nothing serious.

            Coming into theaters without a Pixar stamp of quality for most animations might create groans for adults, especially those who have children to drag to the theaters. Pixar, with its now 15 plus years of tradition and Google-like innovation, has become synonymous with balancing childhood wonder with serious adult themes. Thankfully, Pixar’s formula is not copyrighted, and other studios and directors are free to try their hand at something a little more adult-friendly. In fact, Rango, a new Western-set animated film, might be way more fun for adults looking for an interesting take on the genre than the kids who may not understand the film's numerous homages.

            Behind the (nonexistent) camera for Rango is director Gore Verbinski. Mr. Verbinski has been a fascinating Hollywood workman, starting off with his creepy and effective work in The Ring, but then falling into directing the increasingly bad Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Mr. Verbinski though has more talent than those films have shown, and together with screenwriter John Logan (Big Fish), they bring a cornucopia of ideas to this acid Western, mostly through homage and parody.

            The film begins with our hero, the green, tiny-eyed, lizard with a Hawaiian shirt, acting with inanimate objects in an aquarium. Realizing his acting will only improve with conflict, he gets his wish when the car his tank sits in falls off the back and leaving him stranded in the Mojave Desert. When he finally discovers other creatures in the town of Dirt (moles, snakes, toads, and other cleverly designed creatures), the lizard decides to take on a new acting role by becoming the titular character, a mean totting western hero who will bring justice to the town and solve its slowly draining water supply.

            Rango is voiced by Mr. Verbinski’s Pirates collaborator Johnny Depp, who fits in well to the absurdist western universe, and makes for the biggest laugh in the film—an homage to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And much of the pleasure of Rango comes from the amount of films that are referenced throughout the film. Obviously the Sergio Leone westerns play a big influence in the film’s fatalistic universe, but so do other films like Rancho Notorious, Apocalypse Now, and El Topo. Perhaps the best part of Rango comes in the form of the town’s mayor, an old turtle voiced by Ned Beatty who channels the performance of John Huston from Chinatown. The plot actually heavily borrows from the Polanski classic, and pays proper homage through dialogue (and thankfully leaves out the incest—there are still children watching after all).

            However, all this collecting of other movies might be too much, because the fun of Rango comes less from its obvious plot and more from the films it recalls, making the film feel less original than simply a pastiche. By doing so, Mr. Verbinski brings in other greats, but shadows his own greatness behind the work of others. This fact proves why Rango plays best for adults and not for kids, though they may find the critters, which often literalize the strange euphemisms of the Western, adorable and funny to see. Rango is full of ideas, but none too original.

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