Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Rango" - REVIEW

It may be (gorgeously) animated and feature a cast of anthropomorphic animals, but one thing is certain about Rango: this is not a kids movie. The latest film from Gore Verbinski (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films) represents a major comeback for the director, who was rushed and saddled with messy scripts for Pirates 2 and 3. His latest, written by John Logan (The Aviator, Sweeney Todd) is a spectacular and spectacularly odd ode to the great westerns of Leone and Peckinpah that relishes their cliches with a knowing wink.

Our hero is Rango (Johnny Depp), although he doesn't officially have a name for at least the first 20 minutes of the film. A lizard stuck in a tank, he spends his time putting on plays with the assorted toys. And right from the get go, Verbinski and Logan let you know that they're not out to please the kiddie crowd. Filled with nervous, rapid dialogue that makes references all over the place, the opening scene is surprisingly existential (Rango repeatedly asks "who am I?" throughout the story). Once a bump in the road (actually an armadillo) sends Rango's tank out of the back of his owner's car, set to "Ave Maria," you know you're in good (albeit eccentric) hands.

From there, Rango gradually becomes acquainted with the desert animals in the town of Dirt, all while a Greek (er, Mexican) choir of birds in Mariachi garb sing of his impending doom. The town is pressed for water, which has been drying up, and is the key to the town's survival. Many of the story elements are nothing new to those who have seen an old western (the importance of water is used in many, especially Once Upon a Time in the West).

However, in creating an animal-centric world, Rango gets to truly shine. The dusty wooden structures are remarkably detailed. In fact, the visuals are possibly THE key to Rango's success, and that's not a bad thing. In addition to the stunning animation, the film boasts master cinematographer Roger Deakins as a "visual consultant" (as do How to Train Your Dragon and WALL-E), and his presence shows. Animated films may not have actual "cameras" or "lighting," but Rango packs all the visual wallop of a master class in lighting and shot composition. As a script, the film is certainly funny, although not always as funny as it thinks it is. The visual design, however, is so remarkable in how it weaves animals into standard scenes of Western film making, and sights such as the town populace riding at sunset on the backs of roadrunners left a huge, silly grin on my face.

Helping it along is the fabulous voice work from the cast, which along with Depp includes Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Abigail Breslin, and Bill Nighy. Not all characters are fully utilized (Breslin, and especially Ray Winstone), but the film's flashes of eccentric wit and visual flair manage to make up for it. Best of all is a massive chase sequence involving desert rodents on bats that rivals the flight sequences of How to Train Your Dragon for thrills; if only live-action chase and action sequences could be as well constructed, edited, and staged.

Yet after such a long ride of older teen and adult-oriented humor and style, Rango manages to mess up a little in the final stages of the plot. After such fantastic, pander-free storytelling, I was longing for an epic showdown at the finale. Unfortunately, what we get instead is something much more kid-friendly, as well as slightly protracted. The film's final moments salvage it, and it's constantly aided by Hans Zimmer's excellent, Morricone-infused score and of course the visuals. But after so much delightful (and never superfluous) weirdness, you'll likely yearn for something more, well, adult, considering how much Verbinski and co. managed to get away with (including 2 prostate jokes). It's likely to go over younger kids' heads completely. For those looking for a remarkable and unique (in spite of the cliches) take on the Western, however, it's a winner.

Grade: B/B+

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