Movie review – Eye-popping Western for adults and kids

2011-03-18 09:09

Film: Rango (UIP)
Director: Gore Verbinski
Featuring: Johnny Depp, Isla ­Fisher, Ned Beatty, Bill Nighy, ­Timothy Olyphant and Alfred Molina
Rating: 9/10

The dusty cards of the Old West are reshuffled into a winning hand in Rango , a madly clever animated saga with style and wit to burn.

Reconfiguring the spaghetti Western into a fusilli con camaleonte, Gore Verbinski’s surprising escape picture after years in the Caribbean is eye-poppingly visualised in a hyper-realistic style that at times borders on the surreal.

The verbal flights of fancy will often sail right over the heads of rugrats, as will the innumerable references to and twists on classic movies, making this one animated feature some adults might enjoy more than their kids.

But the presence of Johnny Depp in the title role assures muscular box office returns.

Rango has the feel of a lark, of a film lover’s spree in a playpen equipped with some of the world’s most expensive and expressive toys. Verbinski also enjoys the advantage of some highly gifted playmates, including technical wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, as well as some of his Pirates of the Caribbean effects’ cohorts.

Unquestionably the first kids’ cartoon to feature a homage to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Rango pivots on the pilgrim’s progress of a mild-mannered pet chameleon who finds greatness thrust upon him when he ­pretends to a past of accomplished gunslinging in the name of ­justice.

In the process, he becomes sheriff of the dried-up desert town of Dirt, which is presided over by a fat, old tortoise (Ned Beatty) who controls the ragged community’s water supply, a situation that neatly allows the film to accommodate a child-friendly ecological theme.

That Rango has something different in mind from the general run of animated features is clear in the preliminary philosophical banter between Rango (Depp), a bulging-eyed chameleon, and a Don Quixote-like armadillo (Alfred Molina) whose midsection has been flattened by a truck’s wheel.

Ushered on his way through the arid landscapes by a mordant mariachi owl band, Rango encounters female lizard Beans (Isla Fisher). They stumble upon the aptly named town of Dirt, which is occupied by a wide range of vividly realised critters who share one thing in common: They’re all thirsty and can’t hold out much longer without water.

While some distracting sideline villainy triggers busy chases and battles, the real bad guy is the mayor. His henchman is the giant Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), memorably equipped with a rapid-fire Gatling gun where his rattle normally would be. But before Rango faces his high noon with the serpent, he has an inspiring encounter with an iconic character called the Spirit of the West who bears an uncanny resemblance to an aged Man With No Name.

Screenwriter John Logan, working from a story cooked up with Verbinski, and the latter’s longtime illustrator and conceptual consultant James Ward Byrkit, stirs the pot of genre archetypes, conventions and cliches with a sharp eye for their amusing reusability while also writing flavoursome character dialogue.

For his part, the director has broken with convention by not recording the vocal performances separately but with the actors working together on a prop-laden and partly dressed stage for 23 days, during which time their work was shot by HD cameras so that animators could later reference their facial expressions and bodily gestures for inspiration.

But most exceptional is the visual style, which makes even the best animated 3D look like a poor cousin. Meticulous
attention has been paid to light and shadow, to gradations of colour, to details of faces, costumes and props, and to the framing of shots. Some of this is deliberately meant to ape the density of the compositions in certain classic Westerns.

A few off-colour dialogue exchanges are mildly surprising for a family-friendly film, and dropping five minutes or so from the running time would have tightened the screws to its benefit.

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