Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ready to Tango With RANGO ...?

RANGO Review:

- Even if Rango isn't a perfect movie, it's one you've got to admire, and one that you want to support. In a world filled with cookie-cutter ideas - particularly in the often-dumbed-down, lazily-plotted world of big-screen animation - it's awesome to see a movie that feels this original, this different, this weird. Yes, Rango is essentially a talking-animal CGI movie, but it doesn't feel patterned after your typical Disney or Dreamworks affair. If anything, it's a whacked-out homage to classic Westerns, film noir, and other old-Hollywood staples, with a healthy dose of postmodern surrealism thrown into the mix. There's also big action, absurdist comedy, and delightfully trippy animation that brings to mind classic Looney Tunes. Rango will make you smile, but it might also make you think "WTF?!". But in a good way. Because this is one of those rare animated films that doesn't feel made by committee - it feels like someone's strange fever dream, dreamt after a night of old movies and too much candy, transplanted from their mind directly to the screen.

Rango begins with our titular character - a scrawny lizard (voiced by Johnny Depp and resembling his version of Hunter S. Thompson in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas) - in the midst of an existential crisis. Trapped in a small terrarium, the lizard is forced to wonder about his true purpose in life. In a Waiting For Godot-like void, the lizard is forced to converse with inanimate objects and stage one-man-plays for his own entertainment. However, his world turns upside down when he's shaken loose from his terrarium, while being hauled in the back of a car by his owners. Stranded in the middle of a stretch of lonesome desert highway, the lizard sets off to find meaning, identity, and yes, adventure.

After a lengthy prologue that ie enjoyably strange but also a bit too ponderous for its own good, RANGO really picks up steam once he stumbles into the town of Dirt - a dusty, lawless place that seems transplanted directly from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western - except, you know, populated by talking animals. And while the trappings are pure Wild West, the plotline soon takes on the tropes of Chinatown, as we find out that Dirt is quickly running out of water - water that's being hoarded by someone out to squeeze the townsfolk for all they're worth. If you've seen Chinatown, then you'll quickly cast a suspicious eye at Dirt's charismatic, grandstanding mayor. And if you've seen Leone's The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, than you'll notice a resemblance between the fearsome serpent who terrorizes Dirt - Rattlesnake Jake - and the "Bad" of Leone's film played iconically by Lee Von Cleef. And, if you're familiar with old-school Westerns, you'll also get a huge thrill (maybe even some chills), during the scene when Rango - now the self-styled Sherriff of Dirt - has a surreal encounter with the very familiar-looking Spirit of the West.

There are all sorts of reverant tributes and homages in Rango - stylistically and plot-wise, and it makes for a really fun viewing experience for anyone who's a big film fan. The movie has a lot of rapid-fire humor, both visual and dialogue-driven, but it also has a strange sort of gravitas as well. There's a real epic quality to the story - in part due to the awe-inspiring, sweeping visuals, and partly due to the surrealistic, expressionistic style, which gives everything an air of hidden meaning and metaphor. And man, those visuals ... this really is one of the more beautifully-animated movies you'll ever see. This one isn't about hyper-detail, like, say, last year's Legend of the Guardians. Instead, it's more about creating these evocative landscapes and characters, and giving the whole thing an enormous sense of scope, motion, and picturesque, high-contrast, modern art brilliance. And while certain frames of the film are fit for, well, framing, there are also a couple of epic action scenes where director Gore Verbinski channels his own Pirates of the Carribean movies and just goes balls-to-the-wall in terms of screen-filling, madcap craziness.

So what's not to like about Rango? I guess it's just that for all it's visual bluster, the story and plotting is just so all over the map that the movie would tend to lose me at times. There are a number of scenes that are a lot of fun and very cool in and of themselves, but the movie's overall connective tissue can be a little flimsy. In some ways, it leaves you feeling a little empty, if only because it never quite succeeds at telling a coherant story that keeps you invested. I mean, what is RANGO? Is it a Western, a film noir, an action movie, a kids movie, a comedy, a surrealist art-film? It's a little bit of all of the above, and yet not quite any of them. In a way, you've got to like a movie that doesn't confine itself to any one genre or style. On the other hand, sometimes the result is less seamless than it should be (especially when you compare to the effortlessly genre-bending works of, say, the Coen Bros., or even the wonderously hilarious videogames of Tim Schaefer - like Grim Fandango - of which Rango really reminded me). In Rango, the stylistic shifting is just too messy to really come together in a way that 100% works.

All that being said, I still really enjoyed Rango, and would highly recommend it. If nothing else, it's refreshing to see something that doesn't feel like a stock Dreamworks or Pixar or Disney movie. This is something that is wholly its own, and I admire that. And on a purely visual level, Rango is astounding, cementing Gore Verbinski as one of the true visual masters working behind the camera today. I can't wait to see what sort of imaginative world he takes us to next (and I'd still love to see his take on Rapture, aka the world of Bioshock). Finally, Rango is just a pretty cool tribute to classic movies and stories and character archtypes. A lot of love and passion went into this one, and that makes this a movie that, despite its flaws, is still in my mind a must-see.

My Grade: B+

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