Rango is not your average run of the mill animated feature. For starters, it is not produced by one of the major animation studios that completely dominate this area of filmmaking (i.e. Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Blue Sky Studios, Sony Pictures Animation, Animal Logic or ImageMovers Digital) or one of the many smaller companies hoping to become the next big animation studio but rather is the first ever animated feature to be produced by visual effects wizards Industrial Light and Magic – which studio Paramount Pictures now expects to keep making animated films for them without any start-up costs and give DreamWorks Animation a run for Paramount’s toon distribution – the famous and highly respected effects studio doing the animation while the film is co-produced by Nickelodeon Movies and director Gore Verbinski’s production company Blind Wink.
And with a new production company entering the animated frame comes a new and very distinctive creative style – Rango is truly like no major animation you will have seen before. Brought to the screen by Gore Verbinski, the director behind the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and written by John Logan – who is preceded by quite a stellar screenwriting track record, his past work including Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Time Machine, Star Trek: Nemesis, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, The Last Samurai, The Aviator and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – from a story by him, Verbinski and Pirates of the Caribbean storyboard artist James Ward Byrkit, ‘Rango’ has already distinguished itself from this year’s many other CG animated movies by being the only one to not be getting a release in 3D – which is interesting, given that several sequences in the film almost seem as though they were designed for 3D – but what really sets it apart it that it is much more of a left field animation, the film differing from the norm in both its production and the final product.
For one thing, during voice recording, the actors weren’t simply made to voice the characters – i.e. stand in a booth and speak into a microphone – but actually play them, with them all being given costumes and sets to “help give them the feel of the Wild West” so, in essence, they were actually performing their roles rather than just lending their voices, a move intended to create chemistry between the cast and deliver better performances and something which not only impressed star Johnny Depp – who only has a 20 day window in which he could voice his role for this film, the filmmakers scheduling his supporting actors so they could do the scenes with Depp and interact with him – but has also impressed critics thus far. Verbinski’s intention after completing the large scale Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy had been to do a “small” film but her underestimated how painstaking and time-consuming animated filmmaking is – just because a filmmaker proves adept at one medium it doesn’t mean they can cope with the other, as has been seen with other directors that have crossed over between the two mediums in the past. Is this a bad omen for the quality of Rango though? Read on to find out.
Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) is a pet lizard who has spent his entire life in the confines of a cosy glass terrarium, safe and comfortable but lonely and with no idea of who he really is, his only company being a headless toy doll, a clockwork fish and a dead cricket. Destiny it seems has greater plans for Rango though and when he finds himself stranded in the middle of the Mojave Desert, his isolated and aimless existence makes way for adventure, excitement and the chance to do something truly meaningful with his life. Desperate just for a drink of water, water being a commodity that is in very short supply in this barren landscape, Rango encounters a wise armadillo (voiced by Alfred Molina) who tells him of a town called Dirt some distance from the highway where he has become stranded. Thus, with a quartet of mariachi owls following him to chronicle his life story – “the lizard, he is going to die”, they say – Rango sets off into the desert, immediately falling afoul of a hawk and only narrowly escaping. Eventually making it to the town with the help of self-sufficient pioneer Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher), Rango is told by the young but tough Priscilla (voiced by Abigail Breslin) that “strangers don’t last long here”.
He discovers that the town is in the middle of a major water shortage and, with outlaw Bad Bill (voiced by Ray Winstone) immediately taking a disliking of him, he finds himself convincing the locals that he is a notorious gunslinger with a lightning trigger-finger, something that seems to be confirmed in the eyes of the locals when a fortuitous accident sees Rango ‘kill’ the hawk that has been terrorising the town for a long time. With the townspeople convinced that he is the real deal, a true hero, the Mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty) decides to name Rango the town’s new sheriff. Rango is loving his new found status in life for a while but this is cut short when bandits, led by Balthazar (voiced by Harry Dean Stanton), steal the town’s entire supply of water and he is ordered to form a posse in order to get it back. Little do they realise though that the entire town has been manipulated by one greedy power-monger who’s determined to keep the people of Dirt under his control with the help of a diabolical villain named Rattlesnake Jake (voiced by Bill Nighy) whose gatling gun effortlessly cuts through all challengers. Now, if Rango can just locate the Spirit of the West (voiced by Timothy Olyphant) and summon the courage to realise his true potential, perhaps he can finally free the people of Dirt from the tyranny that binds them, and discover his true destiny under the scorching desert sun
For more than three decades, Industrial Light and Magic have been on the very cutting edge of special and visual effects, consistently wowing us with their incredible work and never failing to show they are the best of the best in what they do. When it comes to visual effects we have come to expect nothing less than something truly spectacular from everything they do and now, as they make their debut in the crowded world of CG animation, we obviously expect nothing less than something truly amazing of their CG animation work as well. Rango most assuredly lives up to such expectations, in terms of its visuals at least. The animation here is truly excellent, often being so life like as to be virtually indistinguishable from live footage – in a scene late on in the film, a ‘human’ character, the Spirit of the West, looks so real that he almost could be, and that is no easy feat in animation – and the desert setting has been captured so authentically as to make every last bit of dirt seem completely real to us.
The rough and barren texture of the desert is rendered perfectly, as have the sometimes beautiful landscapes and skies, and the animation is heavily textured and detailed across the board, a lot of attention clearly having been paid of the details. With the film being very much like a traditional western, only with all the roles being played by animals of the desert, there is a very raw and edgy look and feel, something that you don’t often find in animated features. The animation has a very distinctive and different look, the design often being extremely surreal – no more evident than in a Salvador Dali style dream sequence involving a headless toy doll and a clockwork fish – and the film generally being very bizarre. This isn’t your typical family animated movie, that’s for sure. This is a film that looks great, that much is undeniable, but unfortunately, like with many animated features not produced by the major animation studios, the film isn’t always as successful in other areas.
While there are moments that are very funny, the film as a whole is surprisingly lacking in big laughs; while there are sequences that do prove rather exciting, the overall film is strangely lacking in excitement – something that this film seems to share in common with one of Nickelodeon Movies’ (and ILM’s too, come to think of it) 2010 movies, The Last Airbender, not that I am putting Rango into the same category as that poor excuse for a blockbuster – and, considering, that this film is directed by Gore Verbinski, whose Pirates of the Caribbean films were great fun, the film is nowhere near as fun as you might expect it to be. The whole thing is just rather slow paced, a lot of scenes being based around conversations that, while boasting brilliant dialogue and being superbly done, will likely bore the younger members of the audience. Additionally, while the storyline is very strong, it is also a bit too complicated at times, some aspects of the plot not actually being explained sufficiently – such as what the bad guy actually did with the water – events sometimes moving along at a desert tortoise’s pace.
The screenplay by John Logan is generally very good but it is missing some of the little things that might have made it truly great, the occasional funny gag or nod to the older members of the audience sadly not quite enough to overlook the shortcomings. The film is also surprisingly dark and sinister with some sequences that are perhaps too scary for younger viewers. The film is not without its strengths outside of the visuals, however. The music score by Hans Zimmer, combining western style music with a mariachi twist – a quartet of mariachi owls feature throughout the film to tell us Rango’s story through song and also remind us that he is headed for “certain death” – is inspired and perfectly complements the visuals. The voice cast is also quite excellent. As the titular hero, Johnny Depp is superb, imbuing his character with a strong and very funny personality and doing a spot on accent. And, with the unique approach to the vocal performances utilised in the making of this film, the chemistry between Depp and all his co-stars is truly excellent.
Everyone here does a convincing period accent and each cast member brings their character to vivid life, Isla Fisher creating a strong willed but also very fragile persona, Abigail Breslin convincingly portraying a tough youngster, Ned Beatty coming across very sinister but not overly so, Bill Nighy being truly slimy as a villainous snake, Ray Winstone being an obvious but effective choice for an outlaw, Alfred Molina putting across an air of wisdom in his performance and Timothy Olyphant perfectly capturing the grit of an old cowboy. All in all, Rango is a seriously weird film. Technically flawless but too dry to fully satisfy, it doesn’t quite work as a family film but as some sort of bizarre art film it proves more interesting. It definitely deserves credit for trying to do something different and on several levels it works perfectly but Industrial Light and Magic aren’t going to be challenging Pixar’s crown just yet. This film is an interesting but slightly flawed piece of animation that, perhaps, like Depp’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, just isn’t for everyone.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)