Rango (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Gore Verbinski
viewed: 03/06/11 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Rango is one of the better-looking and vaguely more “original” of feature digital animation films to hit the big screen in the last year or so.  Starring Johnny Depp as the chameleon in the desert and directed by Gore Verbinski (who directed the Pirates of the Caribbean series, which propelled Depp to his highest points of commercial success), the film, being an animation, is a bit of a departure.  In the past, some animation directors moved into live action, but rarely, if at all, the other way around.

Rango channels the Spaghetti Western, but also pulls from several spheres, casting asides to the Pirates series, the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone series of films, even Depp’s portrayal of Hunter S.  Thompson gets a nod.  In fact, it’s a very post-modern film, almost “meta” in a sense.  The film also verges frequently into the strange and surreal, something Verbinski flirted annoyingly with in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), but here is often a site of some of the films most amusing moments.  However, these self-aware, reflective, and bizarre characteristics ultimately accompany a fairly traditional plot with the typically over-stated and painfully obvious “messages” and morals that so much popular cinema likes to spell out with damning clarity as if children couldn’t interpret anything on their own.

The character design and personae are sharper and more unique than the average animated film.  The aesthetic is, while cartoonish and not purely naturalistic, does lean toward a hyper-realistic three-dimensionality to the characters.  All the reptiles have very defined bumps on their skins, textures are rich, and details are deep.  The characters are less rote perhaps to the animated feature (with the exception of Rango himself, Beans (the female lead), and the main villains of the film, Tortoise John and Rattlesnake Jake).  The smaller roles are more caricatures of Western film types, devised and developed in their character design, not as much stand-ins for characters that populate the majority of animated films.

The film is a lot of fun.  It’s funny and lively (Felix liked it a lot), and Verbinski definitely handles the action sequences with a lot of verve.  The audience seemed to think it was pretty great.

Rango is a caged chameleon with no real life, until he is accidentally spilled out into the desert, where he finds his way to the throwback town of Dirt.  Dirt is a town with a diminishing water supply (a line of social criticism the movie opens about irrigated deserts — but doesn’t fully explore), and its people are poor and oppressed.  When Rango blusters and BS’s his way into the town as a tough guy and winds up sheriff, telling tall tales and keeping them going with clumsy luck, you can easily foresee the scene in which is charade is exposed and he “lets everyone down” that he is really a “nobody”, not a hero.  And beyond that, you know that he’ll overcome that all in the end as well.

This is the film’s great weakness, its standard core of a story arc and the moral that accompanies it.  I didn’t want to film to verge into indulgence, but I would have liked it to stay a bit weirder, more unpredictable, and to be as clever as its character designs and certain set pieces.  Not that I was expecting it; I had a sense of its approach from its trailers.

But of all of the animated features that have been running as trailers for this year, it’s been the only one that I looked at thinking that I’d like to see it.  I know I’ll end up seeing others, but this was a case of one that actually looked good to me.  And it is pretty good.  It’s funny, it’s fun, and it’s got quirks and excitement.  The whole little animal kingdom of Dirt was an odd mixture of creatures.  I don’t doubt that it will be one of the better mainstream animated features of 2011.

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