The Best Movie Critic + review

Rango

Rango the lizard sheriff leads a bizarre menagerie of hypnotically rendered, scruffy, disheveled CGI Old West critters across open desert on the backs of birds saddled like horses. The image is at once visually iconic and crackpot insane, even hilarious. Then, all sense of wonder and madness is broken instantaneously when a Shakespearean chorus of mariachi playing birds breaks the forth wall to mug at the audience and play souped up electric guitars. As I hope this scene illustrates, Rango pitches wildly back and forth between mad genius and lowest common denominator cheap seat gags that barely qualify as humor. Thank god it's more of the former, and precious little of the latter. I don't even remember a single poop joke! Halle-fucking-lujah!

I mean, yes, it's a talking animal movie. But the similarities to the Shreks and Alvins* of the world end there. It's as if director Gore Verbinski looked out over the mess of modern Hollywood and set out to prove that the people working in movies right now are perhaps the most talented people working in movies ever, they're just poorly utilized. Every contributor to Rango comes out looking like a champ. The voice talent consists of a fantastic cast of character actors hungry for the good roles that Hollywood just isn't feeding them these days, and they devour their parts. Harry Dean Stanton plays the head of a clan of sketchy hillybilly moles, deftly navigating his character's hairpin emotion turns, from menacing and proud to thoughtful and paternal. Bill Nighy - recognizable for so much, but to me he will always be Shaun's step-dad from Shaun of the Dead, and Davy Jones from Verbinski's Pirate movies - tears it up in Rango's third act as the dreaded Rattlesnake Jake. Nighy sounds like he's having almost as much fun voice acting as I am listening to his mesmerizing, gravelly voice.

And holy moses, Industrial Lights and Magic. ILM has been the standard for high-tech wizardry since George Lucas created the company for Star Wars. In the last decade, however, they've had plenty of competition, first from Peter Jackson and WETA and later from any number of worthy upstarts. With Rango, ILM retakes their crowd as the reigning masters of jaw dropping digital effects in a big way. What a smart move it was for Verbinski to bring the brilliant Roger Deakins on board as a cinematography consultant on this all digital production. Deakins, whose work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and True Grit astounds, guides ILM's artists and technicians to create perhaps the most visually satisfying and enrapturing digital universe in the short history of CGI animation. Not that the animators themselves are schlumps either. The sequence where Rango's posse is chased through a narrow canyon by an air force of bat-riding moles rivals Peter Jackson and Weta's Skull Island chases from King Kong just in terms of kinetic insanity. I wanted to cry after that scene, it's so great.

Arg, but those damned mariachi birds!!! Keep coming in and ruining everything!

Apart from the mariachi birds, I'm actually really impressed with the maturity Rango expects from its kiddie audience. I can’t think of any other recent animated movie that deals with plot machinations as complex as adapting the plot of Chinatown for kids. No, not the incest part. But the whole “Whoever controls the water controls everything” plot is lifted almost completely intact from Roman Polanski's classic. That this movie expects kids to keep up with a plot about water usage rights and underhanded capitalist political backroom dealing is encouraging. The movie requires kids to use highly abstract cognition and short term memory recall. For example, on several occasions Rango notices mysterious red mud in incriminating places. The origin of the mud is never spelled out until the very end of the movie. Up until that point, the audience - even kids in the audience - are supposed to keep track of where Rango has seen the mud in their heads. There isn't even one single line about the mud. There's no "Wait a minute, I've seen this somewhere before!" or "This mud looks familiar!" It's a lot more than Shrek or even most Pixar movies expect from their audience. Whether kids can keep up with the plot or not is up for debate, but it’s pretty cool that Rango expects them to.

What's crazy is that for a "talking animal" movie, I feel like I could keep writing about Rango for hours. I haven't even scratched the surface of the suggestive theme about Rango's chameleon personality, and how it perhaps mirrors Verbinski's own directorial personality. Or how about the totally meta moment when Rango seems to actually step out of his movie to speak with the Spirit of the West, a suggestive and problematic figure in his own right for reasons too baffling and spoilerific to go into. So here's the deal: Rango isn't perfect, but it is jaw dropping, thematically compelling, and several other hyperbolic descriptors that should be reason enough to spend some time on it. See this bitch!

-Ben

*Don't tell anyone, but I haven't actually seen the Alvins and I've only seen one Shrek. Shameful? Eh...

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Rango + review