Film Reviews


By • Mar 9th, 2011 •

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Industrial Light & Magic is probably the first thing that would come to someone’s mind if you asked them to name a visual effects company. They got the most illustrious start anyone could ask for; revolutionizing special effects with their work on the original STAR WARS trilogy, and expanding into a company that now has over a dozen Oscars to their name. They’re not the first place that would come to anyone’s mind if you asked them to name an animation studio, and yet here they are with their first foray into animating an entire feature. Not surprisingly RANGO is a sight to behold; the characters are surprisingly expressive, environments expansive and visually stunning, and action beats appropriately kinetic.

Director Gore Verbinski is in the same boat as ILM. He’s done effects-heavy work before with the PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN trilogy, but this is his first animated feature. Visually it is a match made in heaven, especially with Roger Deakins credited as a visual supervisor (the same position he held on WALL*E and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON), and the bracket to your right shows off the impressive cast, while the trailers that have been playing since last summer gave you a taste of the Looney-Tunes-in-the-old-west action beats. Verbinski’s filmography shows that he knows how to pace action, but is scattershot when it comes to pacing the scenes where the visual effects are on their smoke break. Comic timing doesn’t seem to be his strongest suit, and the third PIRATES feature boasted a way-overlong running time and dreadful pacing.

Rango, as played by Johnny Depp, is a pet chameleon with lofty acting ambitions living with a wind-up fish and half a Barbie doll in a tiny aquarium. When his owners move, his cage is knocked out of the back of their car and shatters on the Nevada highway, leaving him stranded and alone in unfamiliar terrain. Wandering through the Mojave desert, he finds himself in a podunk town called Dirt, whose inhabitants are quickly running out of water. The mayor of Dirt (Ned Beatty, doing a scarily dead-on imitation of John Huston in CHINATOWN) is the white-suited villainous tortoise who is secretly in control of the town’s water supply, and uses henchman to do his bidding. Through comedic circumstances, Rango is elected sheriff after killing a dreaded eagle that’s been terrorizing the town, and is tasked with forming a posse to find a water supply, slowly piecing together that he’s a pawn in the mayor’s schemes.

It’s standard western stuff, and rarely makes attempts to break or parody genre conventions, instead going for a thoroughly by-the-numbers story, with no sense of spontaneity or surprise. The characters also seem convention-bound, especially in the case of Beans (Ilsa Fisher), Rango’s love interest and the standard holier-than-thou lady of the west. Fisher certainly has the voice and demeanor down (sounding like Mattie Ross all grown up), but there’s no development to her outside of ‘she is the love interest.’ Character actors like Stephen Root, Alfred Molina, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ray Winstone breathe life into well-designed but otherwise dull supporting players, while “Little Miss Sunshine” alum Abigail Breslin steals every scene she’s in as a dry, sarcastic mouse who constantly asks Rango if she can have his boots if he’s killed in action.

Even with the weird dream sequences, coupled with the plentiful references and visual nods to Sergio Leone and John Ford, (not to mention story elements lifted straight out of THREE AMIGOS! and BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III and a big shout-out to APOCALYPSE NOW), RANGO is for the most part a lumbering mess, and it’s flaws are encapsulated perfectly in one of the first scenes. When our eponymous hero enters the town of Dirt, he wanders into the local saloon, and when asked who he is, he gives himself a badass past, claiming he killed seven bandits with a single bullet, and engages in various comic shenanigans with the patrons, such as inadvertently belching fire onto one of the bad guys. The scene sounds well and good on paper, and is greatly enhanced by the grimy, low-lit look of the saloon and it’s gruesome patrons (including an ornery chicken with an arrow sticking through its head), but in practice it’s aimless and protracted with constant gags and one-liners that are only intermittently funny. It doesn’t help matters that the scene keeps getting jarringly crosscut with non-comedic plot-driven scenes that instantly stop whatever rhythm the bar scene was going for.

That’s the whole first hour in a nutshell; an overlong chaotic mess. Jokes fall flat while the pacing and tone shift radically from scene to scene. Every sequence either drags for an indeterminately long amount of time, or feels as if it was haphazardly cut down to about two or three shots. During all this random frantic scrambling, the visuals, beautiful as they are, become the film’s only consistent strength.

RANGO doesn’t pick up momentum until almost an hour in, when we’re introduced to villainous gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nigh), who sports not only a Lee Van Cleef-style mustache, but a rattler outfitted with Gatling guns to boot. He’s working as the mayor’s right hand man, and he’s a force to be reckoned with. His retractable teeth, menacing voice, and fire-and-brimstone speak will scare the hell out of kids in the audience, and make everyone else wonder why he didn’t show up earlier to save the first hour of the movie from sucking.

It’s during this scene that Rango gets the standard ‘he’s-a-faker-who-needs-to-be-run-out-of-town’ treatment and bolts, having a strange vision quest along the way that provides the movie with it’s best scene (which I won’t spoil). Of course, Rango comes to Dirt’s rescue and the movie steadies it’s pace for a nifty action climax.

A mixed bag if there ever was one, RANGO is the kind of movie you should wait for until it comes out on DVD (or Blu-Ray to get the most out of the amazing visuals) and start at the one-hour mark, maybe going back and watching some of the first hour with your thumb hovering over the fast-forward button if you’re so inclined. If you are saddled with seeing it in a theater, there is one positive; you’ll save a couple of bucks as it’s the first CG animated film since “WALL*E” to not be released in 3D.

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