Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Good, The Bad, and the Lizard: RANGO

Rango is a computer-animated family film about a lizard with no name. He bounces out of the back of a truck and crash lands his terrarium on the side of a desert highway. Looking for signs of civilization he ends up in the pint-sized wild-west town of Dirt that’s populated by poor animals who are suffering from a terrible drought. They could also use a hero. So, this lizard says his name’s Rango, a rough, tough, capable gunslinger. Naturally, the townspeople make him sheriff. It’s not like they have a better option.

It’s a film that follows easily recognizable Western tropes, but it’s even more endearingly odd than you’d expect. This is a cockeyed postmodern western that’s a total delight in its energetic entertainment. It’s also a fantastically dark and fairly complicated look at the make up of identity. Rango himself puts on a new identity when stumbling into an animal Wild West town, playing his hero role as John Wayne by way of Don Knotts. He’s a thespian who builds his reality out of fiction, much like the film itself builds a glorious feat of originality out of gorgeous homage.

Directed by Gore Verbinski, he of The Ring and Pirates of the Caribbean fame, creates a world of starkly unexpected originality. From a script by John Logan, it’s one part kids’ film, one part Chinatown, and one part sophisticated revisionist Western. I never would have thought that was a combination that could be pulled off, let alone this well, especially coming from a director who, while clearly talented, had heretofore shown little in the way of personality. Though now, looking back on his other films, especially the three Pirates, I can start to see a bit of an auteurist thread in the way he freely plays with genre under the cover of crowd-pleasing blockbusters.

Is Rango crowd-pleasing? I’d like to think so. This is a film that’s certainly, for lack of a better term, weird. But it’s also a rather safe kind of weird. It’s not at all alienating in its unexpected strangeness. There’s great energy in its visual wit, in the inventive and spectacularly staged set-pieces that riff on classic Westerns in enjoyable ways while still remaining faithful to the colorful, accessible milieu of its own that is created. This is hardly a film so burdened down with homage that it becomes inaccessible to all but the amateur film scholars in the audience. This is closer in spirit to Tarantino; the references are there if you catch them, but they’re still just a part of a larger entertaining picture.

There’s also great energy and skill to be found in the hugely entertaining chameleon-like voice performances. It’s a rare animated film that has its big-name voice cast disappear into the texture. Other than the marquee name of Johnny Depp (the film is, after all, being sold as “Johnny Depp is…Rango”), who remains recognizable through his excellent voice work, the cast so thoroughly inhabits their parts that the end credits were a delightful surprise to find out just who had a personality provided by the likes of Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Abigail Breslin, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, and Bill Nighy. These aren’t camouflaged star turns. These are specific characters, detailed and quirky in their own specific ways.

The characters are also remarkably ugly, vividly so. The animation, supplied by the special-effects studio Industrial Light and Magic in their first foray into feature length cartooning, is extraordinarily detailed. These are no rounded, soft, appealing prototypes for toys. These are realistically scarred and feathered creatures with ugly lumps and awkward gestures. They’re anthropomorphized, sure. But they’re much more grotesquely animal than we’re used to seeing in films of this type.

Which leads me back to Rango himself. His character is deeply, appealingly peculiar in his fluid identity and in his naked yearning for acceptance at any cost. It turns this enjoyable genre mashup into something a bit deeper, into a story about the power of constructed identity. It’s about, if I may be just a tad highfalutin here, the tension between who we are and what we say we are, a theme that crystallizes in a scene of chilly beauty as a distraught character contemplates committing suicide through a nighttime crossing of a dangerous road while long white-and-red streaks of taillights go soaring by. That’s rather deep stuff for what seems, at least on the surface, to be and is both a raucous Western and a rip-roarin’ animated family film. Indeed, I found the experience to be rather soulful amidst its jagged edges, western tropes, sand-scored scenery, and ugly folks. Much like last March’s How to Train Your Dragon, this is a film that builds its colorful entertainment from emotions instead of solely from flippant commercialism, proving that Pixar isn’t the only American animation company capable of high standards.

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