I may have mentioned before, but I don’t like Westerns. As time has gone on, I have begun to, maybe unfairly, loathe them for the most party. Their predictability and overall conventionality has always irked me like no other genre. Their pace was always obnoxiously inconsistent, where it’ll be really talky one moment, really slow for a half hour, and then they’d expect to rouse the audience with a short, bad filmed fight scene. So, the wild, Wild West never caught my interest.
Until now, that is. Gore Verbinski’s extremely clever and marvelous film Rango has done what few films can do; catch my attention and not let go for the length of the film. This is film escapism at its very best. You know what else is cool about it? It’s animated. Though the animated film is unfairly the province of kid stuff, animation is less a genre than a method of storytelling. And if anything, Rango succeeds on a level that transcends all animated films before it. Yes, even Pixar is left a little in the dust in my mind after I saw this. (DreamWorks was really no contest.)
Johnny Depp portrays a reptilian thespian, whose sheltered and deluded life is made up of him practicing method acting in his terrarium. When thrown unceremoniously from the car, he is brought to a local town in the Mojave Desert called “Dirt” and, in fine actorly form, assumes the position of a rough, tough outlaw who is then assigned the duty of sheriff. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. The water is nowhere to be found, and he is supposed to help find it, et cetera.
Yes, the “I’m not who I really am” story has been done a dozen times before; even the “I’m an actor” thing has been done before (Galaxy Quest, A Bug’s Life). But with Johnny Depp’s totally insane sensibility and manic voice acting, the film comes off as doing it better. It’s more fun and more believable. Depp sounds like he’s so at home playing a lizard and his voice acting is truly incredible.
The rest of the cast is equally impressive, with Bill Nighy as a deadly snake; Isla Fisher as Beans, the heroic, catatonic love interest; Ned Beatty as the Mayor of Dirt, who most definitely is suspicious; and Abigail Breslin as a cute, deeply sarcastic, painfully pessimistic little kid.
If a film is about feeling and aura, the deeply Western appeal and textual look is outstanding. The most noticeable and amusing inclusion is a quartet of owls who narrate the story. Singing very traditionally written songs about legends and playfully hinting at Rango’s death in every song, like any good pessimist, the quartet completes the amusing feeling of watching a true western. Even Hans Zimmer’s nuanced and flexible score adds an incredible, irresistible element to everything.
It’s not wrong to say that this can be considered a “true Western”. All the elements are there. The archetypes and conventions of a Western are all there. The difference, for me at least, is that they’re heightened, more entertaining, self-aware, and just funnier and more fun to watch and experience. That constant repetition of story element isn’t weighing the story down, and the characters and setting really bring it to life. The film has enough allusions to real westerns as it is, with specific call backs to High Noon and The Magnificent Seven, as well as a surprising guest appearance from the Man with No Name, ahem, I mean the Spirit of the West. Timothy Olyphant dutifully voices the Eastwood-ian character, and nails every line, the scowl and disdain in his voice extremely palpable. It’s a wonderful surprise for any film buff.
One of the things I really enjoy about the movie, besides the film itself, is really how the film was made. Isla Fisher mentions on the Blu-ray bonus features that recording for an animated film is normally “a very isolating experience”. You stay in one room and record your lines against the director. There’s no sense of real acting going on, since you’re not playing against anything or anyone, which has always bothered me. It’s a wonder that not all animated films sound unrealistic and droning, which is where one must congratulate the sound editors. Rango is a different case. The acting ensemble got together on a set and acted out the scenes, in light costume, and recorded together, making it feel like a true acting experience .Thus, all the dialogue and reaction, and even facial expression (which was incorporated later when the film was being animated) is included and it just seems more natural; more right. If only more animated films were born this way.
The guys who animated this film are part of an elite club, in a way. Industrial Light and Magic animated this film, and they were a team first created with the task of creating the visual effects for a little film in 1977 called Star Wars, directed by some almost-nobody named George Lucas, whose previous film was some nostalgia trip entitled American Graffiti. Anyway, ILM has been responsible for nearly every exhilarating scene of visual effects in Hollywood today, notably the behemoth projects of Jurassic Park and King Kong. So, it seems a little odd and intriguing that a visual effects company who’s never made a feature film by themselves would set out and make an animated film. Needless to say, their expertise in all things visual paid off.
ILM brings an astounding amount of detail to the film, a sense of such photorealism; you will not believe your eyes. You won’t believe that it’s animated for one, except that chameleons don’t normally talk, but the minute and meticulous attention that is paid to every object, landscape, character design, setting, etc. is awe-inspiring. The subtle refractions of light in glass; the expert distortions of reflections in water; the painfully realistic scales on Rango; and the meticulously designed eyes of nearly every creature…they all come to stunning life. I’m not one for 3D movies, and I am normally prone to ranting and raving about it, but this film I would have loved to see in 3D. That is something I will probably never say again, mind you.
What Rango does successfully, besides creating a less than loathsome attitude in my mind towards the Western genre, is create such fun and excitement and exhilaration that you can’t help but stare. It’s the most visually arresting film I’ve seen in ages, and the most impressive looking animated film that will probably be released for the next few years. The acting is superb, and Johnny Depp’s crazy persona perfectly inhabits and brings to life the equally crazy, reptilian thespian Rango. Rango is a total delight for anyone, and works wonderfully as a movie lover’s movie as it subtly explores acting and archetype, as well as investigates the wonderful existentialist dilemma. Rango is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and Verbinski and Depp are at their wild, wild best.