Rango - movie review
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Rango is about a chameleon trapped in a terrarium, who is rather suddenly and literally flung out of his home, sparse though it is, and into the Nevada desert. Johnny Depp voices Rango and, despite the fact that he fails to enunciate, project or really pound home the words of the character he inhabits, he manages to present us with a charming, loping lizard hero. Given that this is a CGI film about talking somethings (cars, animals, toys, robots; whatever is being anthropomorphised, it scarcely seems to matter anymore), the tropes of this genre dictate that the hero must be:
2. Well meaning, in spite of being inept
3. Jinxed with a dash of hubris.
4. Capable, yet unwilling to allow said hubris to be sloughed off at some point.
5. Capable and entirely willing to become a hero.
6. Voiced by someone famous.
7. Wearing a stupid shirt
Rango fulfills all of these. He’s eventualy flung into a town inhabited by animals who, inexplicably, are stuck in the thick, sluggish eddies of a stream of old west cliches. Which is absolutely fine, for the record, but it’s worth mentioning for reasons that shall become clear very soon. The town is called Dirt, and it’s run by a southern gentleman-cum-tortoise. The town is bereft of water, and after a lifetime stuck in a terrarium, Rango figures, hey, why not create an entirely new identity? A heroic identity. In fact, the name ‘Rango’ is one he pickes on a whim because it sounds mysterious and a wee bit hardcore; our protagonist doesn’t even have a name up until that point.
And so, after weaving some tall tales, he ends up being percieved as the roughest, awesomest scaly bastard ever born. And, somehow, he manages to make resident tough guy and gila monster Bad Bill (voiced by Ray Winstone) look like an absolute moron, further endearing him to the downtrodden townsfolk. This leads to a shootout, which is cut short when an enormous eagle arrives and begins to... well, to continue would spoil things. Sufficed to say, Rango ends up accidentally saving the town, which leads to him being named sheriff. And he rolls with it because, if he’s nothing else, he’s an excellent improvisor. And, as the film establishes very early on, he’s also desperately lonely. He strikes up a friendship of sorts with the townsfolk, including the driven, sassy iguana Beans (Isla Fischer), and begins to learn the meaning of heroism. Oh, and friendship. He definitely leans about friendship.
The characters do possess some heart and the plot does keep you, for the most part, interested. Johnny Depp manages to, over time, carry Rango from recluse to hero. The rest of the cast do their jobs wonderfully, in spite of negligible character development; hell, barely any of them are introduced or named, yet they’re constantly present. The animation is absolutely gorgeous, especially the more surreal sequences, and the music is a fusion of mariachi music and Ennio Morricone’s work on the spaghetti westerns of Leone.
But as well-meaning as the story is, it’s weighed down by several massive flaws, much like a mother might be weighed down by several fat, talentless children clinging to her legs screaming about the merits of various brands of sweets. Firstly, the basic logic of the town, Dirt, is baffling. It’s inhabited by various species, which is fine, but the filmmakers have deigned to shrink them all down to the exact same scale, which sort of robs the film of any magic. It might seem like a small point, but with the exception of the antagonist, Rattlesnake Jake (voiced with typical panache by Bill Nighy), everyone is roughly the same height. And in terms of scale, when they all head to a water faucet to collect water, they are suddenly dwarfed. The faucet couldn’t be more than two feet high, and some of the animals are turtles, or bobcats. And yet they’re all the exact same height, which means the filmmakers have basically turned them into tiny people with animal faces. They’re dressed like they’re stuck in the old west, which is charming, but they also ride what appear to be ostriches which, magically, have been shrunk down to rideable sizes. It shouldn’t matter, and it shouldn’t grate, but it does; these bizarre, lazy inconsistencies sort of just lodge themselves in the back of your mind and refuse to go away.
The other remaining problem with Rango is the one mentioned right at the beginning of this review; it doesn’t know what kind of a film it is. Rango begins by jumping straight into a series of disconnected, static shots of inanimate objects within Rango's terrarium, with Johnny Depp (again, refusing to enunciate) narrating. It soon becomes clear that he’s become to isolated that he sees the various doodads flung into his home as his friends, and he’s actually narrating a theatrical production. The problem, however, is that this robs us of an establishing shot, and we’re left to hurriedly clamber over a smattering of disconnected, disingenuous strands of dialogue, and what we’re left with is a fairly self-indulgent and lazy character introduction. Hell, this is a kids film. It certainly doesn’t mean that characters need to be painted in big, bold, stupid strokes; Up began with the most heartrending, artful vignette cinema has seen in over a decade; The Incredibles introduced its heroes by elegantly taking what The Watchmen tried vainly to do, and did it eight hundred times better. Here, though, we get a rambling, quasi-endearing ‘character’ piece in a fish tank, and then Gore Verbinski performs the first of many bafflingly indulgent moves (considering that, again, this is meant to be a film for kids), and goes meta on us: he has Rango fly out of the terrarium, soar through the dry Nevada air, and land smack bang on the windshield of a 1971 Chevy Impala convertible. Yep. This 1971 Chevy Impala convertible:
And when you see Hunter S. Thompson (also voiced momentarily by Johnny Depp) gasp and blather something at his lizard doppelganger who is pinned to his windshield, your heart skips a beat. Is this the greatest, weirdest thing I’ve ever seen? Maybe this film is going to work on this level the entire time, you tell yourself. But then Rango is flung elsewhere, and it becomes apparent that Rango (the movie, not the lizard) is just a bizarre shell of a movie, a series of tired characters repeating dance moves they’ve carried out over and over again, peppered with wish fulfillment moments of genuine interest, but which are so self-indulgent that you can practically see Gore Verbinski (who directed Rango and helped write it, but who also directed the Pirates of the Caribbean series as well as the remakes of The Ring) indulging his inner cinephile, at the expense of the viewers. Oh, and the plot suffers as well, because once such a dizzying fourth-wall moment arrives, your expectations peak to such startling heights that everything else seems drab. Sure, later on in the film there are some wonderful points where true effort shines through, but sadly they’re too little, too late.
And yes, It’s a damnable shame that Rango turned out this way. But it’s even more of a shame that it was made so lazily that enthusiastic, giddy critics with very friendly inner-children (like this one) are forced to eviscerate a children's film because the filmmakers in question were so overconfident and arrogant that they assumed by cobbling together some tired bullshit with some famous friends that they’d have a Pixar-beating hit on their hands.
Rango opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday, March 10.
Rango behind-the-scenes clip:
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