Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Ray Winstone, Beth Grant, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Alfred Molina, Timothy Olyphant
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 4 Mar 2011 (General release); UK theatrical: 4 Mar 2011 (General release); 2011)
It’s happening again this weekend, that unnatural clash between competing creative outlets. On the one side is the simple-minded and silly Rio, a film that wouldn’t exist without its carefully constructed marketing campaign, preprogrammed product tie-ins, and the knowledge that thousands of miserable parents are still looking for an 80- to 90-minute outlet for their attention deficient wee ones. It’s so manufactured and manipulated it should have a bar code running down its side. On the other hand, Gore Verbinski’s brilliant Rango is still sitting in theaters, losing some of its wide release luster (it has been out since 4 March) but none of its appeal. In a perfect world, this clever Johnny Depp vehicle would remain the year’s biggest hit. Sadly, a bunch of shameless rapidly moving primary colored shapes are going to hypnotize the demo into giving them a lot of undeserved dollars.
The rationale is not hard to comprehend. Rio is mindless. Rango is a masterpiece. The former feels (and is) filmmaking by committee (in this case, those geniuses behind the interminable Ice Age films). The later is a homage-heavy vision clearly created by a couple of guys (director Verbinski, Tony winning playwright John Logan) who believe animation should be open to anything, not just easy to digest examples of pandering to the lowest common denominator. They want to put the art back in the artform, to show that there is more to the genre than obnoxious ogres, anthropomorphized objects, and the polished, perfected Pixar approach. Rango is, instead, dirty and complicated, gritty and yet grin-inducing. It’s cartoons by way of Hunter S. Thompson and the wackiest of the Warner Brothers, kid vid as fashioned by Sergio Leone, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and the entirety of the spaghetti westerns’ call of the sagebrush.
Our hero is a chameleon, living a sheltered life of fantasy and imagination. Using various items found in his tank, he imagines brave adventures where he saves the day. One inopportune pothole later and Rango is on his own, lost in the desert and drying/dying from lack of water. Meeting up with a prophetic armadillo, he is sent in the direction of Dirt, a sleepy outlaw burg run by benevolent Mayor Tortoise John. The town is suffering from two major crisis. One, they are running out of H2O as well. Ever since their weekly visit to the magical spigot has produced little to no libation, the residents have been uneasy. Some have decided to sell out and leave. Others have turned to crime - leading to Dirt’s other problem: lawlessness and no sheriff. That all changes when Rango is put in charge. He vows to protect the last of their sole means of survival. When that is suddenly stolen as well, the citizens look to their newly enshrined hero for help. Sadly, this loopy lizard may not be up to the task.
Rango reminds one of how special animation can be. It transports us to a place we’ve seen and experienced before and yet does so with a viewpoint so new and novel that it reinvests our always ripe cynicism with a fresh new coat of hope. It features flawless character design, dizzying narrative fun, a lot of brilliant voice work, and just enough nods to the studio standard type to remind us of why it was made in the first place. It’s a billon times better than any Shrek, more fun than a barrel of minions, and actually does something that’s rare in cartooning - it compares more than favorably with the live action version of its source…and all because Verbinski has his crew decided to stay true to the story and the characters first, and hope that the audience agrees with its implicit quirk.
This is an eccentric film from the actors cast to the way the plot points play out. Yes, we get action set-pieces and the usual pop culture cornpone. But unlike other entries in the category, Rango makes sure to contextualize its concepts. We don’t get random riffs on current teen idols. Instead, timely jokes are balanced off moments where the punchline is just as confused as the premise. Similarly, Verbinski allows Depp the opportunity to do what he does best - create a memorable persona, and little lizard reverberates with just that kind of powerful personality. When he’s lying, he lovable, moving into a zone of his own unique making. Similarly, when love interest Beans (wonderful work by Isla Fisher here) “freezes up” going catatonic at random moments, we see beyond the caricature to actually care about her. Everywhere in Rango is something to celebrate, from the flaccid nose of a villainous rat to the moment the massive Rattlesnake Jake shows up with a machine gun turret for a tail. Then Verbinski makes it come together as a wild, wicked whole.
Like what Pixar does with its motion pictures, Rango concentrates on the ‘total’, not just the moments. It makes sure the set-up and situations are sound before jumping into the pratfalls. It doesn’t stoop to stunt casting and keeps the voice work from becoming the main attraction. Sure, we can hear Depp in Rango’s twang, but everyone else is symbiotically built into the critter they play. Nothing stands out, everything serves the entirety. Then Verbinski takes it all a step further. The clearest parallel is what Wes Anderson did with the stunning stop motion delights of The Fantastic Mr. Fox. In both instances, actual auteurs stepped into a new filmic format and delivered an undeniable work of movie magic.
So if the option presents itself (and you can convince the ankle biters of the ruse), head over to Rango instead of propagating Rio‘s unnecessary existence. Of the two, only one hopes to thrill its viewers as much as wow them with technology (and it’s not the one that keeps throwing will.i.am and Jamie Foxx’s questionable singing talents at you). Of course, the truth is far more depressing. Rio will rake in way too much money, mandate a few dozen sequels, sell its shiny baubles at every Wal-Mart and Target in America, and call itself a “success”. If cash is all that counts, Rango won’t be able to compete. On the aesthetic front, however, this is an amazing animated anomaly.