Rango: This Chameleon Doesn’t Blend In– It’s a Standout
While many of my favorite films in the last few years have been animated features, none of them have been as bizarre or gleefully unpredictable as Rango. Everything about it, from the script to the plot to the character designs, is in strict contradiction to what is considered the norm in these types of movies. Gore Verbinski has concocted a Western that both fits within the genre while gently mocking it, and he allows the film to go on psychedelic tangents, full of unusual twists and weird colorful imagery. I’m not certain whether it’s the approach Verbinski took to the animation, but this is also one of the better-looking computer-animated features I’ve ever seen. It’s not what the commercials indicate with animals making fart jokes like other non-Pixar animated films: this is a strange and exciting movie, the best of the first three months of 2011.
We meet a chameleon (Johnny Depp) with a penchant for acting. He performs with the others occupying his terrarium, a headless Barbie doll and a wind-up goldfish named Mr. Timms. Unfortunately, while en route through the Mojave Desert, his terrarium crashes and he finds himself in the wild for the first time. An armadillo (Alfred Molina) and a lizard (Isla Fisher) help him find a town called Dirt, filled with all of the types of characters you’d find in any Old West town. In order to fit in, the chameleon calls himself Rango, pretending to be a cold-blooded (pun?) killer. When he accidentally dispatches Bad Bill (Ray Winstone), everyone believes his stories, and Mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty) names him sheriff. But sheriffs seem to die in Dirt pretty frequently, and there are shady circumstances surrounding the rapidly decreasing water supply in town. Will Rango channel the Spirit of the West and become the man… er… chameleon everyone wants him to be?
This is the first animated movie in recent memory that not only isn’t written for kids, it seems to have been constructed with adults in mind. Much of the vocabulary in the dialogue is beyond that which children will understand, which means despite having talking animals making funny faces, this is without a doubt a more sophisticated movie than the surface seems to indicate. Also, most children may not be familiar with the character types which these animals portray– but each seems so vivid that from the second Rango walks into the town of Dirt, we recognize everyone. The bartender looks right, the town drunk looks right, the nervous bank manager looks right, the little short dirty guy with a squeaky voice looks right (and is also my favorite character– his name is Spoons). The music and script manage to strike the delicate balance between satirizing Westerns while also earnestly going through the motions. It’s funny, but because the movie’s characters and dialogue are so familiar, it’s what makes this film seem so original.
And then there’s the giant trippy dream sequence that revolves around moving plants. And the Hunter S. Thompson appearance. And the fight against hillbilly moles while riding bats. This movie often would travel so far off the reservation that my mouth would drop open. How did a movie like this get made? It’s clearly the type of things kids want to see, and kids should see, but it’s so bizarre and aimed at adults in its style of humor that I wondered if Gore Verbinski got this gig solely based on the amount of money he made people with the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks. To “film” this, he got his actors to act out the whole film, they shot it, and the animators used the actors’ movements and facial expressions as the basis for the animation. More films need to do this clearly, because these are some of the most expressive and interesting animated characters to date. Perhaps having the actors interacting rather than just holed up in a booth with a mic and script helped them get more into it and as a result, they gave the animators more interesting things to work with. Whatever the case may be, the film is gorgeous. Unlike nearly every movie I’ve seen this year, here’s a film that is always smart and never boring. Without question, this is the first must-see film of 2011, and it will fit nicely on my Blu-Ray shelf next to eight of the Pixars, two Dreamworks films, and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs as the best computer animated films to date.