John Logan, Gore Verbinski, James Ward Byrkit
Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Ray Wisntone, Ian Abercrombie, Gil Birmingham, James Ward Byrkit
PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking
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There aren’t many mediums that haven’t blended together for a successful amalgam. Two genres we haven’t seen mixed very often or to such a competent degree as the western and the animated feature. In Rango, a concept that seemed potentially catastrophic on the surface has managed to come off admirably well.
Starring Johnny Depp as the title character, a pet shop chameleon, lost from the back of his family’s vacation transportation, finds himself struggling for survival in the desert. Seeking shelter from a ravenous bird, Rango stumbles upon a remote Wild West town in need of a competent sheriff. Not realizing the challenges of running a town whose water supply is going dry, Rango spins a tall tale about his past that earns him the job.
Getting Depp away from the now-hamola character of Jack Sparrow was the initial challenge. There are elements to the character that remind one of Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean icon, but for the most part he manages to reign in his excess and deliver a charming, conflicted character. Isla Fisher does a fine job as Rango’s romantic interest Beans, but there’s not enough to her scare-and-freeze character conceit that gives her much room to grow. Ned Beatty has played many roles like the Mayor before, which keeps the character from feeling terribly original. It isn’t precisely stunt casting, but putting him in a different character might have been more fulfilling. Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root and a handful of other talented actors lend capable, yet undistinguished work in the film, leaving most of the heavy lifting to Depp who does well in that task even if it makes the film feel too lopsided.
Part of the reason Depp works so wel in the film and is given too much to do is that his Pirates helmer Gore Verbinski is at the helm (and contributes to the screenplay along with John Logan and James Ward Byrkit). Verbinski’s origins in live action special effects give him a unique eye to animated adventuring. The cutesy secondary characters that often plague Disney and DreamWorks films aren’t as readily accessible here. Much of the film is focused on pleasing adult audiences who are more like to appreciate both the western genre and the wink-nudge humor coming out of Rango’s mouth. Were this a children’s film alone, it would be largely out of their grasp conceptually; as an adult-orietned picture, it works quite well and gives hope that the medium can expand from its current kids-only mold.
Computer generation has become such a mainstay in animated features that seeing anything else would have been quite shocking. Although it might have been more intriguing and exciting to see a hand-drawn animated picture, one that conjured up images of cinema’s Wild West past, computer animation enables the audience to more easily identify with the places and locations the film explores. The animtors did a spectacular job creating our imagination’s version of an Old West town. The richness of detail, even as we ride along with our heroes through the mesa-draped canyons of the desert, is staggering. This is a fleshed out world that would be indistinguishable from the real thing were it not for the obviously-animated anthropomorphic critters in the cast.
Despite my many misgivings going into the film, I wasn’t expecting something as engaging or entertaining as Rango. Fans of westerns and adult fans of animation are likely to find a great deal of interest in this film and even if you think you might skip it because it’s western or animation or stars the over-exposed Johnny Depp, give it a try. You might find you enjoyed it in spite of yourself.
August 10, 2012