Friday, 4 March 2011

Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011) Review

Johnny Depp provides the voice of Rango in the film of the same name (2011)

Rango is a genuinely odd little film. Its central character is a spindly-necked, cowardly lizard who stumbles into a down of desperate critters ranging in size and ugliness... but they all make it clear that this thespian reptile is not welcome in the town of Dirt, which is undergoing a water crisis. Who can you root for in this tumbleweed town? It's evident from the get-go that the Sheriff is crooked and nobody's looking out for their neighbor. Rango is a film which not only has genuine reverence for the Western, but is also a solid entry into the genre itself. It's no Once Upon A Time In The West (Leone,1968), sure, but then what family animation could be? For once it's nice to see a contemporary animation bursting with life and originality; a film with colour and vigor, and one in 2D. How did this thing ever get made? Well, likely because of the global success of the Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy (2003, 2006, 2007), which made Gore Verbinski a millionaire-making filmmaker to be reckoned with. And it's with great pleasure I get to say that rather than turning out another pandering hack piece, he's matured into a genuine artist...

There are plenty of nods to older movies, but rather than just indulging in post-modern winking Rango actually engages with its roots in order to serve narrative and tone. The plot adheres to genre convention, recalling A Fistful Of Dollars (Leone, 1964) and Pale Rider (Eastwood, 1975) in its plot, but is all the better for it - clunky exposition and setup can be niftily sidestepped. The saloons, wooden outhouses and dusty trails are instantly familiar, as are the clichéd character types - but here we also get a strong, dryly funny female character in the form of Beans (Isla Fisher). She's the smartest character in the film, cynical and cautious of everyone, always on hand with a one-liner and day saving idea. She's also the obvious romantic interest for Rango (Johnny Depp), but their unfolding relationship is played unconventionally, and remains quite sweet.

Gamers will instantly draw a connection to Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath (2005) in the idea of a withered, desolate Western landscape providing the backdrop for some critter quirk. That game is probably darker and more violent (the central character is a bounty hunter) but the worlds feel like distant cousins... they are markedly different, but seem to exist in the same universe. One gets the feeling that if Rango had walked twenty miles in the opposite direction he'd have bumped into Stranger and his deadly crossbow. If you're a fan of the game you'll definitely find something to enjoy in the tone of this film, which is filled with just as many humorous, genre-bending eccentricities.

The plot can feel a little scattershot but there are plenty of exciting set-pieces and surreal moments to hold it all together, and the cast of characters are engaging and memorable. My favorite was the truly menacing Rattlesnake Jake, voiced with OTT relish by Bill Nighy. He's clearly having a blast in the role, slithering his way through some deliciously ripe dialogue; the animation makes him an imposing presence (with a gatling gun for a tail he towers above the other characters and moves three times as fast) but Nighy instills him with genuine character. He's the best villain I've seen in an animated film for a long time, and may haunt the nightmares of future generations. Beans is a real delight too, and Timothy Olyphant steals the film as The Spirit Of The West in a truly beautiful sequence. To the sound of Danny Elfman's 'Finale' (originally written for the score to The Kingdom, Berg, 2007) Rango crosses the deadly road he started on, now lit up by stars and headlights. Somehow he makes it to the other side, and for his perilous journey he is rewarded by the dreamlike presence of the aforementioned Spirit. To call it transcendental would be pretentious and hyperbolic, but I was really moved by the sequence. It's rare to see a kids film move into such abstract territory, and it'll delight Western fans.

There are little plot holes I could pick up on, but it's not worth it. Rango is overlong in a narrative sense but I could have spent another hour with these characters, exploring their world and going on adventures. It's a beautifully animated film, vibrant and colourful in 2D (thank the lord), and its originality of vision is to be celebrated. There are some cracking action sequences (a canyon chase), lots of humour and an overall sense of the West that marks it as a genre not dead or dying, but most definitely alive...

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