Friday, March 11, 2011

Take the time to tango with 'Rango'

I tried describing “Rango” to a friend who knew nothing about it. It didn't go well. “It's an animated western with animals featuring the voice of Johnny Depp.” The friend replied it sounded like a disaster. It isn't, though, far from it actually, because that simple description fails to grasp the supreme weirdness of the film.

The animals in “Rango” are not cute and fuzzy. They are reptiles, birds, mice and other small mammals that are designed in a way that is both realistic and exaggerated at the same time. The characters often look odd, but never to the point of being scary with the exception of a villainous snake.

“Rango” comes from Nickelodeon Pictures, and this marks a huge step forward for the company in terms of quality and content. Parents expecting “Spongebob Squarepants” or “Jimmy Neutron” should take the PG rating seriously and provide parental guidance.

There is some strong language, the pace is more slack than your average animated feature and the content a bit more sophisticated. The film actually plays better for adults than kids. That being said there's still plenty of colorful animation and exciting action to please younger viewers.

The title character, voiced by Depp, is a pet chameleon who in the opening of the film gets separated from his owners and left wandering the desert. He stumbles upon the town of Dirt. Rango fancies himself an actor and reinvents himself as a tough hombre. When he accidentally kills the hawk that regularly attacks the town, he is proclaimed a hero and named the new sheriff.

His first duty as sheriff is to sort out the town's water crisis, which turns out to involve a conspiracy not dissimilar to the one in 1974's “Chinatown.” The villain of the piece is a crooked mayor voiced by Ned Beatty, who following his similar role in “Toy Story 3,” is becoming the go to guy for this sort of voice work.

“Rango” is director Gore Verbinski's first animated feature and he brings a very cinematic quality. It very much looks and moves like a live action film especially in the action sequences. The animation by Industrial, Lights and Magic is extraordinary. There are close ups of Rango's skin that look remarkably like real lizard skin. The desert landscapes are beautifully rendered. This is a great film to simply look at.

Verbinski is best known for the first three films of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, which also starred Depp, so they clearly understand each other. Both “Rango” and the “Pirates” films share imaginative, quirky action sequences and a subversive edge, but that's where the similarities end.

The Verbinski film that “Rango” is more closely akin to is the little seen and highly underrated “The Mexican,” a romantic comedy, of sorts, starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts centered around getting hold of a mysterious antique gun.

Both “Rango” and “The Mexican” play with western mythology and iconography in interesting and unexpected ways. In the case of “Rango,” this includes a mariachi band of owls that act as a Greek chorus for the film and get a laugh every time they appear on screen.

Verbinski took an interesting approach with the voice actors for this film. Typically, voice actors are recorded individually in separate booths. The actors for “Rango” were record together. This isn't the first film to try this method, but Verbinski took it one step forward and had the actors perform in full costume, almost as if performing a play.

The approach paid off and the film has vivid voice work from a cast that includes Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Harry Dean Stanton, Alfred Molina, Ray Winstone, Stephen Root, Bill Nighy and Timothy Olyphant doing his best Clint Eastwood. And then there's Depp whose wild card energy permeates throughout the whole film.

The film does sag a bit in the middle when it gets too bogged down in its plot, but it recovers nicely for a rousing finish. Even in its slower patches, “Rango” remains an interesting film and one worth exploring.

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