Monday, March 7, 2011

Chameleons of the Mojave

As I've mentioned before, it often takes a lot for me to want to see an animated film in the theaters. Despite the universal appeal associated with films like The Incredibles, Up, WALL-E and the Toy Story franchise, I tend to wait until they're available on DVD rather than pay the ticket price when they first come out. Of course, "eye-popping" 3D technology has become a game-changer, as most animated films released in the past year did so with that gimmick in hand. Though 3D has yet to garner a mainstream appeal in home entertainment systems, mostly due to price and uneven reviews (thus rendering the medium moot on DVD for the time being), it still isn't enough to drive me to the theaters to see such a film. Mainly I think I have problems paying good money to see a title geared towards small children, but the best animated features appeal to viewers of all ages. Still, I tucked that thought away to see my first animated film of 2011 (and the first in the theater since who knows when) in the Gore Verbinski-directed Rango. The trailer caught my eye some months ago, and so as it was one of my more awaited March films, I chose it over The Adjustment Bureau and Take Me Home Tonight when picking which film I wanted to see this past weekend.

"Psst! Are you holding?"
Johnny Depp voices the film's main character, a mysterious stranger who goes by the name of Rango. Actually, Rango is an unnamed and domesticated chameleon who ends up separated from his human owners in the middle of the Mojave Desert, consequently a fish out of water trying to find salvation from certain death and  - possibly more important - from loneliness. Rango feels so alone in the world, and when he comes across the animal-run town of Dirt, the actor in him creates the Rango persona to be notorious, heroic, mysterious; all the things he wasn't in his previous life. It works well until the facade begins to crumble under the pressure of keeping up appearances and the town's need for a real hero, something Rango isn't sure he truly is.

Despite popular conception, cowboys and baked beans don't mix
Rango is a true homage to films set the wild west; it plays out like a light-hearted Sergio Leone spaghetti western, right down to its authentic character archetypes and camera angles. While Rango himself is more of an outsider, the townsfolk are legitimate western folk, from the orphaned daughter of an alcoholic father fighting to control her land (voiced by Isla Fisher) to an overly-nervous bank manager (Stephen Root), a bandit outlaw (Bill Nighy) and a charismatic double-talking mayor (Ned Beatty), just represented by animals. While being perhaps cliches of preexisting characters, the director and actors do amazing work by treating the material straight and making what could have been a ridiculous farce into quality craftsmanship. The film even has it's own narrative mariachi band ("manned" by owls, no less) to help keep the film going on at a brisk pace.

Most awkward wedding photo EVER
The acting here is simply outstanding, and Verbinski made the right choice issuing Depp to lead this cast, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. Despite his fame for playing such eccentric characters as The Mad Hatter, Edward Scissorhands and of course Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp actually plays the role of "the normal guy" so well that he disappears into this role. Having a voice-over part in this vein actually helps hide the fact that Depp is in fact he character in question, adding to his smooth delivery. He is also perfect in the cockier "Rango" persona, a mix between classic Robert Redford and a giddy schoolchild living out his wildest dream. Depp's more subdued performance also plays perfectly to his less-heralded co-stars, letting them shine around him. Fisher is perfect as the tough-girl romantic interest Beans, a desert iguana with self-defense mechanism (freezing in place) so out of kink that she suddenly stops at inopportune times. She also is the most vocal advocate against the problems the town has, and is most suspicious of this new stranger in town. Nighy is completely unrecognizable as the evil bandit Rattlesnake Jake, who terrorizes the small town of Dirt. Nighy is delightfully evil and revels in the role, though it's not a very big one by most standards. Beatty is similarly smarmy as the resident mayor/businessman, eyes constantly looking towards "the future." Abigail Breslin is underused but not misused as a young smart-mouthed child who eventually looks up to Rango, and Root is his usual outstanding self as several characters, most notably the nervous bank manager. Harry Dean Stanton, Alfred Molina, Timothy Olyphant, and Ray Winstone all do great work playing characters who help and hinder Rango along the line of the film's plot. The acting, with Depp at its core, is talent extraordinaire, a testament to Verbinski's skills at finding the best people for the roles.

"Fitting in" is usually not so impossible for a chameleon
The film surprised me in a many ways, but a few of them weren't as good. For one, a film supposedly geared towards children was surprisingly violent. I'm not suggesting all kids are going to be scared by this film, but the doesn't gloss over the violence inherent in the Western genre (guns, dehydration, explosions), painting a film that probably should have been marketed to teens instead. Though not overly or even aggressively violent (more focusing on the spirit of adventure), the film does have its scary moments, mostly thanks to Rattlesnake Jake and a giant hawk. Secondly, for a supposed comedy, it wasn't particularly funny. The first half of the film elicited nary a chuckle from the dialogue, mainly dependent on the slapstick elements of the film to get over on the kids. There are some good bits after the midway point (SPOILER: When Rango and his posse go undercover as traveling actors, their target responds "Thespians? That's illegal in seven states!"), the film is much more serious than the trailers would lead you to believe, including topics of death, mild and implied profanity and the consumption of alcohol. I'm not against these things; in fact, when the subject at hand is an homage to Western film, I should pretty much EXPECT it. I didn't, however, expect to find it here.

"But why is the RUM gone!?"
One of the more amazing things about this film is that it's a 3D animated film by a company that is usually only known for it's effects work. George Lucas's special effects company Industrial Light and Magic is usually associated with other films' special effects departments, but here they created the 3D modeling for their first feature film. The biggest surprise from all of this may be how amazingly well their first time went. Visuals, especially the sun-baked desert, are perfectly rendered, and the characters are expertly built, especially the multi-faceted Rango. Still, if the film had half of the technological wonder it did, it would still have all it needs to be a worthy film. Authentic environments, interesting characters, and respect for the source material; Rango takes all these things and turn it into one of the more unassumingly fun films this year. Charming itself to #1 on 2011's Top Film's list, Rango was a very different film than I had imagined going in. But when you focus on what the film IS, instead of what it was supposed to be, you can appreciate it for the amazing feeling it gives.

No comments: