Rango

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B+

We are in an age where animated films are able to be both financially and critically successful. Five of the top ten grossing films of 2010 were animated, and outside of Shrek Forever After, they all received generally great reviews. In the world of Pixar, animated films are held to a higher standard, and other animation studios are starting to catch up — Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon and the new presence of Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me) show that this is the new golden age of American animation. No longer can a critic judge an animated film as a film only for children.

This all leads of to the first animated feature from both director Gore Verbinski and production studio Industrial Light & Magic, a well-regarded Special Effects studio which has worked on such films as Iron Man and the Harry Potter series. Rango tells us the familiar tale of a lost pet out in a dangerous world. But instead of turning into Homeward Bound, the film uses classic westerns as its backdrop, providing beautiful desert landscapes and archetypal characters to fill its world. This is an interesting approach to a mainstream animated film, because it not only totally shucks the emotional context of humans and animals coping without each other, it also draws most of its context and humor from a genre that hasn’t been popular fare for decades.

Because of this, Rango is a film for film-nerds as well as children and the mainstream crowd. There are plenty of colors, laughs and action sequences to keep any audience member entertained, it’s the many great film references that only the most educated film viewer will catch everything. From Apocalypse Now to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it is easy to see how much Verbinski and Industrial Light & Magic truly love the medium and its best work.

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Unlike many recent parody flicks, the references aren’t presented as humorous just because of its audience’s ability to recognize them. In fact, I wouldn’t call Rango a true parody, as it uses film history and genre tropes to aid its own story. One may see the film as unoriginal in this way, and it certainly doesn’t offer a lot in terms of storytelling, but references are smart, never overplayed, and they give the film a playful tone. I want to mention one particular overt reference without giving away too much: Timothy Olyphant voices a character called “the Spirit of the West” who is a popular figure in western lore. His inclusion could seem silly and trite, if it wasn’t handled with such a delicate touch.

Anyone who has seen My Darling Clementine or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance knows the trappings of Rango’s plot. Rango is a stranger who stumbles into a broken-down western town, bringing reform and a sense of hope while the town is moving into the modern world. The movie is unquestionably saved by its beautiful vistas and character designs, which are sharper than any animated film I’ve seen. Each character is unique in its look; even the minor background characters are easily differentiated throughout the film. The complexity of facial features and the tones of skin are astonishingly vivid, the scales of the lizards and the pink skin of a blind mole are often disgustingly realistic.

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Johnny Depp voices our protagonist and is able to do something he has often had trouble with — allowing himself to inhabit his character without the pressure to be oppressively quirky. Of course we only hear his voice, which helps the cause, but he never does anything to make us realize that this character is obviously Johnny Depp. Rango may have the inherent charisma of its star, but the performance doesn’t scream star-power.

In the same way, the voice cast is populated by really talented actors like Harry Dean Stanton, Bill Nighy, Ned Beatty and Alfred Molina, but they live so deeply in their characters that they are never unnecessarily recognizable. There is nothing more frustrating for me in an animated film than when the stars overpower the talking animal or other character they inhabit.

Rango captures the look and spirit of classic westerns and represents a beautiful direction for animated film-making. I can’t imagine children enjoying this film quite as much as an adult film-lover, but the film knows and respects its audience and can play well for anyone.

tags: gore verbinski, isla fisher, johnny depp, rango

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