Rango: flawless animation, great voice work, recycled story

Rango – 2011

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Ned Beatty, Bill Nighy, Isla Fisher, Alfred Molina, Abigal Breslin, Ray Winstone, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant

Written by John Logan

Rango  starts off with a protagonist acting so strangely, one can’t help wondering if he isn’t more than a little deranged.  It’s the protagonist, a chameleon, played by Johnny Depp, who is almost unrecognizable, vocally.  He’s a pet, stuck in a tank, acting out fantasy with whatever is around.  He moves from character to character without explanation or sense.  He looks miserable and happy at once.

Quite an arrangement of town folk, but something is awry

Soon enough, the status quo is interrupted.  An armadillo named Roadkill (Molina), causes an accident just trying to get to the other side.  This accident lands our hero face to face with his destiny, which he has to find by leaving the road.  Not long after, he is introduced to desert iguana Beans (Fisher).  Fisher is the damsel in distress, about to lose her farm due to lack of water.  The water is being withheld in a power grab by the mayor, Tortoise John (Beatty).  Bound to a wheelchair, the astonishingly sinister elements of Beatty’s voice work give him all the power he needs.  Where this leads has been shown a thousand times.  Rarely so cinematically beautiful, or so full of quirks.

Beatty's Mayor is sinister while seemingly harmless

Each of the characters in this film is so distinctive and beautifully drawn, it looks like it is anything but animation.  This work is so far beyond Toy Story, it is hard to believe they are made using related technology.  It is not a fair comparison, and really I am more grateful than anything.  This is where animation should be at this point.   The people designing this film do an excellent, professional job.

Inside is as crooked as the outside.

Matching the sketch of each character is a vocal work that is note perfect.  Stephen Root’s work, in particular, over 3 characters is each one distinctive of the other and working well within the context of the film.  Beatty, in with Toy Story 3 and this movie, has shown himself criminally underused in animated vocalizations in the latter part of his career.  However much he’s done (no more than this, from my research) it hasn’t been enough.

A Bad Guy with a presence...

As Rango, Johnny Depp finds a new voice, but takes a similar path.  Not exactly brave, but in no way a coward, he mines the familiar ground of Captain Jack Sparrow and Ichabod Crane.  His character is a hard one to love.  There is a distance between his thoughts and his deeds, his deeds and a shared sense of the other characters.  Through most of the film, he moves back and forth between intellectually driven self-preservation, and an absent sense of frolic.  Absent here is any sense of heroism, of course, like his characters from Pirates and Sleepy Hollow.  This time, however, he is called upon by the movie’s Clint Eastwood clone, the horribly named, Spirit of the West (Olyphant, doing a good Clint impression), to act out his story.  This leads to a decent, if brief, ending involving a bad guy, Rattle Snake Jake (an excellent Bill Nighy) and a lot of water moving through the town of Dirt.

Overall, this is a good, forgettable film.  You won’t regret watching it, especially in lifelike high-definition.  There is a disconnect between most of the characters that is hard to define.  It seems like everyone is so starved for water, the part of the brain that supplies half of their character has withered, and what is left is a collection of adorable zombies with little to no thoughts about anything but water.  Add to this, a script retread that is played with (read: quirks) but not deviated from, and you have something of a standard in the movies these days.  Everything, it seems, can be made perfect and original but the story.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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