Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Rango: Grade A


Rango (2011)

Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy; Director Gore Verbinski.

The animation in this feature is as good as anything out of Pixar or Dreamworks. It is done by Industrial Light and Magic and puts them in the first tier of animators. The characters are fully rounded wire-frame animals, with excellent emotional capture. ILM animators have completely mastered the computationally difficult rendering of fur, water, glass, and other supposedly impossible textures and flows. The film is a triumph of animation technology if nothing else.

But there is much else: it's a good film. The characters are desert-dwelling animals living in a run-down western town called Dirt, where the economy is based entirely on water. Their taps have gone dry and even the reservoir in the bank is desperately low. No consideration is given to rainfall or aquifers – they seem to be on city water of some kind, but never mind that.

A histrionic chameleon named Rango (Depp) wanders into town, strutting and bragging about having killed the whole Jenkins gang with a single bullet. He ineptly and luckily saves the town from a killer hawk with a tin beak. He is acclaimed and named sheriff. But the evil mayor (Beatty), who is diverting the water for his own project, hires Rattlesnake Jack (Nighy) to kill Rango. There is a showdown. Meanwhile a romantic interest develops between Rango and Beans (Fisher).

The story line is formulaic, a pastiche of dozens of westerns. There is no dramatic tension, not even the manufactured kind in Cars, for example, and the romantic relationship is unconvincing, nothing like the one in Wall-e, for example; there isn’t even cheap sentimentality, as in Finding Nemo. I don’t know if kids care about those things. For adults, though, what makes the movie great is its sheer creativity. The script is funny and the excellent voice acting (the range of Depp's vocal expression is astonishing) is a treat. Also to appreciate are the beautiful and witty animations, enjoyable music (Los Lobos), and wink-wink allusions to other movies, from Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider, to Star Wars, The Fugitive, Chinatown, and many others. Those references are enormous fun for movie lovers.

Because it lacks a good dramatic story, the movie might not catch on with kids, but because of all its other virtues, I think it will become a classic in the animation genre.

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