There are lessons in Rango that should be taken and absorbed by many modern directors.
Michael Bay, for starters, can get some gold-plated advice on how to put an exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat action sequence together. M Night Shyamalan? He can get a welcome refresher in how to pull a story rug in a way that makes sense and doesn’t feel like some kind of bolt-on.
And what about those who make animated films, and like to put in references and cultural nods? After nearly two hours in the company of Rango, they’ll rightly be sent back to the drawing board. Fast.
For in that two hours, you get nods to Hunter S Thompson, Apocalypse Now, Blazing Saddles, and an abundance of westerns. You get genuinely nasty, frightening moments. You get rounded characters. You get hallucinations. Characters indulging in, er, ‘bad habits’. You get a picture painted of a town on the very edge of desperation, without the edges taken off.
In short, you get an ambitious, exceptional modern-day western. One that just happens to be animated.
From the moment the film opens, as a mariachi band of owls sing the film’s title to you (and, wonderfully, said owls keep reappearing, to sing mood-setting songs at appropriate moments), there’s the feeling that it might be a slightly different beast than the family-friendly marketing campaign makes it out to be (especially when said owls advise you to “enjoy your low calorie popcorn”).
We’re swiftly introduced to Rango, voiced by Johnny Depp, who’s a lizard, living a safe and fairly boring life. He’s in the back of a car, as his family relocate cross country, and his life is turned around when he slides out of said vehicle, to be left on an open road in the middle of nowhere.
This triggers an absolutely enthralling action sequence (not the only one in the film), up there with the best that Toy Story 3 had to offer, where director Gore Verbinski’s camera moves quickly, unpredictably, but always letting you see what’s going on.
And then the pace and direction of the film changes, not for the last time.
For Rango eventually finds himself in the old west town of Dirt, a beautifully realised, grubby place that bears the wounds and influences of many, many westerns of yesteryear. Here, Rango gets to play the hero he dreams to be, as he’s soon installed as the local sheriff. But it, inevitably, doesn’t all go quite to plan, with Dirt facing the very real threat of running out of water, very soon.
Throw in the ominous circling of a predatory bird, and the threat of a rattle snake, and Dirt is not a safe place to be. And that’s before Rango has taken the townsfolk into account.
What develops is a brilliantly written story that sticks to a conventional three-act structure, but uses that to its advantage. Its story twists are logical, but still surprising, while the tension gradually builds up as Rango finds out more and more.
But that’s just part of the film. Because, thus far, it’s an admittedly ambitious story, yet one that could form the heart of a comfortable family movie.
Enter director Gore Verbinski. Verbinski has directed a family movie before, with the massively underrated Mouse Hunt a real delight. He’s best known, of course, for helming the first three Pirates Of The Caribbean movies. Yet, for my money, Rango is the best thing he’s done to date.
For what he brings to the movie is a live action eye. There’s never a feeling that the movie started as an animated film, rather a film to which animation proved best suited.
Verbinski controls every millimetre of his frame, injecting lavish detail where appropriate (backed by the wizardry of ILM, for whom Rango is its first full-length animated feature), and calling on the skills of Roger Deakins (as Wall-E did) to ensure the visual look of the movie is exceptionally striking. The result is a film that’s brilliant to just look at, and one that takes advantage of the camera flexibility that animation offers. And not just for the sake of showing off.
But there’s more. Verbinski co-wrote the story, too (with John Logan penning the screenplay), and it has tips of the hat that might just send your geeky goosebumps off the chart. So, a breathtaking aerial action sequence is played out, Apocalypse Now-style, to Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries. There’s a campfire with the beans being passed around, a la Blazing Saddles. You’ll get tinges of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Of umpteen westerns. Of The Lion King, even. And it’s topped off with a stand-up-and-applaud moment where we get to meet the character whom Timothy Olyphant is voicing.
At its best, it’s arguably as ambitious as anything even Pixar has put on the screen.
There are, nonetheless, small considerations that may hold the film back in some people’s eyes. The pacing might not suit all. Particularly young audience members may (and I stress only ‘may’) find some moments a little too much, and in other places, there’s plenty that will go over their heads. And, if you really, really hate westerns, then you may find a reason to dislike this.
But it’s a small column of negatives, vastly outweighed by the list of positives. Heck, I’ve not even touched on Hans Zimmer’s music (his best score in years, for my money, and equally joining in the hat-tipping fun), or the exquisite character design (complete with brilliant eyes!), which couldn’t have less of an eye on putting toys in the shops at the end of it all. And I haven’t talked about the messages of the film, which manage to be conveyed without relying on loud, swirling music, nor by resorting to the subtlety of Chris Tucker at a megaphone convention.
Ultimately, Rango begs a question: just what do we want from an animated film? Do we want movies that keep anklebiters quiet for two hours, without ever excelling? Do we want sequels, films that follow similar templates, cute talking animals, and twee songs? Do we want them to play safe?
Or do we want a film that’s packed full of risk, detail, excitement, laughs, scares and some of the finest animated work seen on a big screen to date? A film with genuine character, with real narrative surprise, and no eye whatsoever on making the sequel. A film whose voice talent is cast on the basis of their suitability for the role, rather than sticking their name on the poster (Mr Depp included). One that lobs a grenade slap bang into the middle of the safe, softly-softly animated movies that some have been sending our way over the past decade, and throws down the gauntlet to everyone making animated movies in Hollywood, Pixar included.
I know which I prefer. I’ll have Rango, thanks.
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