Review: Rango

Rango | Gore Verbinski, 2011

Rango is the story of a pet Lizard (voiced by Johnny Depp) that one day, by accident ends up getting lost in the Mohave Desert. Him, being a water lizard would probably die at any moment in the desert. But thanks to the advice of Roadkill (Alfed Molina), a wise armadillo, he comes across the town of Dirt. After a series of events that involves Rango’s creation of a new identity, a huge lie, and the death of a hawk that threatened the life of the citizens of Dirt, he becomes the sheriff of the town. But things aren’t so easy. The town is running short on water, and the place where they get it from has not worked for a long time. And so, little by little, Rango find a conspiracy, that, if he decides to pursue and save the town, might end up killing him.

I’ve said it before, but the problem with American animation is that it doesn’t take the medium seriously as a way to tell just about any story, and not just stories for kids. Rango is to some extent a step in the right direction as it is very much a western. The story, the archetypes, and the compositions of certain shots could be straight out of a classic western. There are also some rather violent scenes some objectionable language, and some extremely trippy moments and imagery, all of which are rarely found in modern American animation. Ultimately, these are the main things that made the movie as good as it is, but there is one thing that ultimately keeps it from greatness: the kiddy humor.

Now, “kiddie humor” is kind of a broad term that may cover anything from silly jokes to physical comedy. My problem is not with the spoken jokes. Although at times stupid, the humor comes across as very clever, quirky, and fitting for the setting and the characters. What I found lacking in the humor is the physical comedy that is there just to get a laugh out of the kiddies that do not get some of the most mature jokes. For example, during the scene where Rango is golfing with the mayor of dirt. It is a serious scene where Rango is laying down his suspicions, and then interrupt it by having Rango fumble with his golf clubs and they somehow end up on the floor. The tension in that scene is completely ruined by this two-second joke, and there are quite a few scenes like that in the movie, and they mostly have to do with the mariachi band of birds that interrupt the movie.

I have a couple of other problems with it. One is that the villain’s motivation and intentions are never clear. I see what he is doing to get what he wants, but when it comes to what he hopes to achieve in the end, I don’t quite get it, not even after watching it three times. The other problem that I have is the chase scene with the bats. It is exciting and it works (although it is interrupted by lame humor), but a scene involving “planes” and the “march of the Valkyrie” has no place in a western.

So those are my problems, but everything else is just cherry. I’ve already said that I appreciate the western setting, the story, the characters and the shot composition, but there are other things that help the movie across the finish line chief among them the gorgeous animation. This is the first feature to be animated by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the great visual effect company. First off, the cinematography is magnificent. Roger Deakins was a visual consultant for this, and it definitely shows. And as we have to expect from the company, everything looks realistic, as if you could reach into the screen and touch them, despite the overtly cartoonish appearance of the characters.

Speaking of the odd character design, I’m so happy that the characters were not made pretty to sell toys. Every character is asymmetric, with unique features, and some of them are down right ugly, but I loved them because they fit the setting extremely well and they are extremely creative.

For the music, although it is fine, I thought it was way too over-the-top and at times distracting. Some already expect this of Zimmer, and that is why I love his work, but here it is just too much.

And finally the performances. Johnny Depp is awesome as the lizard with an identity crisis that gets a chance at being someone else. Isla Fisher gives what may be her best performance as Beans, the lizard with Daddy issues and a weird defense mechanism. Ned Beatty is also great as the shady major. Everyone else, from Abigail Breslin as Priscilla to Ray Winston as the thug Bad Bill give fantastic performances, but there are two that stand out for me. One is Alex Manugian as Spoons, a simple supporting character, but he gets the most hilarious lines in the movies, and he delivers them perfectly. But the honor of the best performance of the movie goes to the great Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake. He is the evil gunslinger of the movie, and he delivers his line in such a natural way that he makes the character one the best, if not the best, villains in recent animation, live action or other wise.

Rango, despite some problems, is a forward step towards maturity for American animation. Whether or not studios will conitnue to move forward remains to be seen.

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