7 March 2011

RANGO- Review

After three Pirates of the Caribbean films, you could be forgiven for feeling all Gore Verbinski-ed out. It's the surreal tendences of At World's End, which were totally out of place in that film, that the director leans towards with much greater success in his new animated spaghetti Western, Rango. He reunites with Johnny Depp to do... well, something strange.

Our hero is a domesticated chameleon who spends most of his time acting out melodramas in his tank, and winds up lost in the Mojave desert. He then sets off across the desert and finds himself in a town full of critters, called Dirt, which is suffering from a water shortage. The chameleon then adopts the name Rango and ingratiates himself as the sheriff of Dirt, little realising that anyone calling himself sheriff in this town can't be long for this world...

Verbinski has gone as far from the high seas as it's possible to get, and in the process, created his best film since The Curse of the Black Pearl. He can't take all the credit, because Rango is the union of many different fantastical collaborators. For starters, it's the first animated film by the special effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, scored by Hans Zimmer, and shot by Roger Deakins. I shit you not- Roger Deakins is the DP on that Nickelodeon lizard film you've been seeing adverts for all over the place.

I suppose this is the trade-off, for a studio like Paramount to greenlight something as unfriendly and weird as this film. They're marketing it the only way they can, because if the screaming and frightened young kids in the screening I saw are any indicator, word of mouth is going to kill this film amongst the family audience. Pay heed to the PG certificate, because this is absolutely not a film for very young children. Although I can imagine kids over 8 years old enjoying it is absolutely a film that can only be completely appreciated by an older audience.

I'm aware of the elephant in the room, so I'm going to address it directly- Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox still sucks, in my opinion. Yes, it's another film that pitches above the heads of the young audience, but the essential difference is that it's not based upon beloved source material from an author who does have a younger target audience. Roald Dahl might not have been afraid to create ugly characters to entertain children, but this film is something else. This is a film that features a toad with tits, and the character design is just as unique for every other misshapen critter we see.

In contrast to the ugliness of the characters, the animation itself is astonishingly good. It's all the better for not being a 3D presentation, and it seems bewildering to think that ILM have never come out with an animated film before now, when this one looks so good. The crown jewel is a glorious action setpiece set to a strigiform mariachi band's rendition of Ride of the Valkyries- without exaggeration or rhetoric, I can honestly say my jaw dropped. And happily, it's not merely the visuals that are jaw-dropping.

Around 10 minutes in, you get a hint of what you're in for with an astonishing non-sequitur that references one of Johnny Depp's most iconic roles. Even braver, the thrust of the narrative is a homage to Chinatown, with the ongoing intrigue over the water shortage in Dirt. But on the whole, it's a spaghetti Western, and it's influenced by Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah while equally sticking with Verbinski's own vision.

It doesn't always pay off- Depp playing a dork works much better in animation than it did in The Tourist, but it's a slippery performance nonetheless, and Verbinski isn't known for reining Depp in during their collaborations on the Pirates films. Also, let's not forget that the main character arc essentially mirrors that of Gulliver's Travels and many other kids movies like it- the protagonist pretends to be something he's not, but learns something about himself in the process. Yawn. For the most part though, it's such a unique and unexpected joy that I was swept up in it for the duration.

Rango is so different that it astonishes me to know it even exists under a studio banner. Paramount might have played a little dirty in marketing the film for younger kids, who have surely been confused and frightened by this film all weekend, but the film plays dirty too. It's a film that takes risks despite sticking with the established tropes of its genre, representing characters who are distinctively un-cute and ramping up the death toll to levels that would even have Pixar tearing their hair out. It's certainly a strange little curiosity, but this perverted cheese-dream will hopefully find an audience as appreciative as I was.

Rango is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
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I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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