An average marketing campaign belies the brilliance of Rango, a spectacular western that will almost certainly end up on my Favorite Films of 2011 list. Don’t let animation fool you into thinking this is a movie for kids – though they’ll find a lot to like, it’s much more for adults. If you’re a fan of westerns (or gorgeous animation), this is a must-see.
Though Rango is his first animated feature film, Gore Verbinski is able to accomplish a feat that very few directors are able to achieve: making a film that parodies and satires a genre while also being a great entry into it. Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright are geniuses at this and, now that I think about it, Verbinski did a similar thing with the first Pirates film; he took our expectations of what a pirate film should be, commented on all the tropes and stereotypes, but at the same time provided us with a great adventure movie about pirates. Same thing with Rango: Verbinski takes all the stylistic cues of a western and adds his own off-beat sensibilities behind the camera, preserving the eccentric characters and not allowing them to be watered down by a studio that, in all likelihood, preferred a bit more straightforward storytelling.
Much of the credit for the film’s success belongs to John Logan, the writer, for crafting a story that operates within the confines of a normal western story but allows for a bit of quirky eccentricity throughout to make the entire movie feel fresh. The dialogue almost feels as if it were written by the Coen Brothers; the characters pepper in sophisticated vocabulary – much too sophisticated for a child audience to comprehend – reminiscent of O Brother, Where Art Thou? And though the kids won’t understand every word (hell, I didn’t understand every word), there is still enough broad comedy and visual gags there for them to enjoy. This movie is like an episode of “Community”: even if you don’t understand all of the references, it’s still enjoyable. But if you happen to be one of the lucky people who picks up on all the details, you quickly fall in love with it. Rango is made for western fans and Johnny Depp fans: there are two blatant shout-outs for fans of both (one coming at the very beginning, and one near the end) that will make film lovers grin from ear to ear. Heck, even the poster recalls another Depp classic.
To call the animation in this movie “outstanding” would be an unacceptable understatement. Industrial Light & Magic (also known as ILM), George Lucas’ special effects company, has made Rango their first full length animated feature, and the quality of their work is second to none. Brilliantly rendered worlds and characters come to life in a way we’ve never seen before, striking a balance between the harsh realities of life in the West and the caricatures of desert creatures that populate this film. Some of the landscapes and water in this film look damn near photo-real, and the production design is absolutely perfect. The city of Dirt is filled with all the staples of a proper western town – dirty bottles, tumbleweeds, etc. – but the buildings themselves are retrofitted human trash: the outhouse is a Pepto-Bismol bottle, the saloon is an old gas can, the bank is an old crate turned upside down. (Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins also served as a visual consultant on this film.)
Verbinski was able to lasso an impressive voice cast here, filled with some of the most easily identifiable voices in Hollywood (Depp, Ned Beatty, Ray Winstone) and some not-so-easily-identifiable-but-equally-talented ones (Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Stephen Root). Depp shines as the titular hero, a chameleon who fancies himself an actor and conjures the personality of Rango out of thin air when, following a beautifully filmed crash sequence, he rolls into the dusty western town of Dirt. Surprisingly, the movie has quite a bit to say on the nature of identity; the character of Rango undergoes a journey of self discovery over the course of the film, guided by the sage advice of an elderly armadillo. Rango handles its themes equally well, both those under the surface and on it. Much has been made of the interesting “emotion capture” method of making this movie, and I think the proximity of the actors during the recording process definitely gives the movie a more fluid feel. (I recall a similar tactic being used with The Fantastic Mr. Fox a few years back.)
Without giving too much away, I’ve got to quickly mention the action in this film. Almost every beat works astoundingly well, from the opening scene that puts our lead character’s life into upheaval to a terrific canyon chase scene that rivals How To Train Your Dragon as one of the best action sequences I’ve seen in the past few years, animation or otherwise. There are four owls that serve as a mariachi version of a Greek chorus, emerging at certain points along the way to highlight Rango’s story, and their inclusion in the film never feels tacked on or disingenuous; they are even organically incorporated into some of the action scenes and their presence always brought a smile to my face.
Hans Zimmer’s score is phenomenal, utilizing “Rise of the Valkyries” and some other classic tunes mixed in with his own western yarns. It’s about as far from his iconic Inception soundtrack as one can get, which explains my shock when Zimmer’s name appeared in the credits. While holding the distinction of not sounding like most of Zimmer’s other work, this also isn’t exactly a typical western score; there are bits of eccentricity thrown in here and there (banjos and other such instruments fill out the “Valkyries” movement, for example), but at the same time it still carries with it the air that it belongs, a sort of inexplicably traditional atmosphere that matches the tone of the film itself.
If you’ve reached this point and haven’t been convinced to see this film, I simply don’t know what else to tell you. Rango is a fantastic fun-filled adventure, a dazzling visual feat, and just an all-around great movie. It’s the best kind of western: one with heart, great characters, gorgeous visuals, and dynamic action. I don’t often recommend that you see films in theaters, but this is absolutely an experience to be savored on a big screen. Until next time…