Monday, August 1, 2011

Rango (2011)

I'll just come out and say it: Rango is an incredibly strange movie. It's a film that's clearly marketed by Paramount and Nickelodeon Films as a kid flick, yet it operates on a level that alternates wildly between puerile humor and adult storytelling and genre beats. That makes Rango a difficult film to watch, and yet it's also bizarrely watchable, drawing you into it's twisted world if you're willing to let yourself go.

Rango is about a pet lizard named, well, Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp), who ends up lost in the desert after an accident. He's directed to the town of Dirt, which is running out of water, their currency. Rango finds an opportunity here to invent a new persona, and his exaggerated tales soon earn him the title of sheriff. He stumbles through the investigation of the missing water, uncovering a scheme that runs deep into the heart of the town.

The film's strengths are visual, particularly in the deranged character designs that seem to be the spawn of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. Thanks to Roger Deakins work as "cinematography consultant," there's some truly breathtaking visuals, as is befitting any Western. And director Gore Verbinski, best known for the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, has built a surprisingly diverse resume, now adding animation to his eclectic collection of projects. Though he can't wrangle the tonal shifts, he does present the as a cross between Chinatown and a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western on LSD, which is a feat of its own. The most delightful moment, though, comes from a brief appearance of the Spirit of the West, voiced by Timothy Olyphant.

Unfortunately, Rango suffers from the plague that curses most "family" movies nowadays, a postmodern self-awareness I call Shrek Syndrome. In trying to be entertaining for kids and their parents, there are plenty of potty humor and hyperactive antics for the former, and pop culture references for the latter. Writer John Logan (The Aviator, Broadway's Red) is above this kind of material, and he panders directly to the audience, using genre tropes in place of a truly interesting story. I can't help but wonder what the film would have been like if it had gone more adult; it would still be an oddity, but perhaps a little more maturity could have elevated it from a good oddity to a great one.

It's not that Rango isn't worth seeing; it's just a curious, entertaining diversion of a film that, given the slate of animation this year, might be the best animated film of the year so far, at least of those that I've seen. Very strange, indeed. B

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