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"Rango" Brings Back the Oater in Rugged Style

In a year that will see the release of mega-blockbusters like X-Men: First Class; Green Lantern; Thor; and Captain America, there is one movie unquestionably flying under the radar: Rango, a Western-themed animated adventure featuring talking critters. However, in no way are the critters cute or cuddly—at least, not in the traditional Disney sense.

Rango marks the first foray into animation by highly acclaimed and prolific director Gore Verbinski, who previously re-energized the horror genre with the American remake of The Ring, and without a doubt revived the swashbuckling adventure movie with the Pirates of the Carribbean movie trilogy. Rango, Verbinski’s follow-up to Pirates, makes for an interesting, delightful experience.

Rango is the story of a lizard (Johnny Depp) who lives a mundane life in his glass tank, working on acting technique and one-lizard plays to an audience of a broken Barbie doll and a wind-up fish toy. After a swerve and near accident by the truck transporting the lizard’s tank, he is thrown out on the road in the middle of the Mojave Desert. There he encounters the cause of the accident—a run-over-through-the-middle armadillo, Roadkill (Alfred Molina). Roadkill sets the lizard on a quest, where he finds a town filled with rough-looking creatures who are desperately short of water, their main currency. The lizard, out of his element yet finally gaining an audience he desperately craves, seizes the opportunity to perform and adopts the identity of Rango, a legendary outlaw. The disenfranchised and declining townsfolk, anxious for a hero to deliver them from their plight, instantly take to Rango and his tall tales. The town’s scheming Mayor (Ned Beatty) bequeaths Rango the position of sheriff, though the Mayor’s true motives seem suspicious. Rango, now faced with saving the dying town, must unravel the mystery behind the stolen water from the bank, and face Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy). Unlike Rango’s facade, Rattlesnake Jake’s legend is apparently the real McCoy. Plus there is Beans (Isla Fisher), a spunky, spitfire lizard with a penchant for spacing out randomly, whom Rango seems to fancy.

Rango is a purely fun Western adventure in a unique animated art form. The movie also marks the first feature animated work by visual effects powerhouse ILM. Even while watching the movie in two dimensions, the world of Rango feels like something one could reach out and physically touch. The art and design of the movie look authentic and constantly keeps the visual senses guessing. I was also grateful to see the movie in theatres without 3D, so I was not concerned with focusing on how good the CG animation pops and comes out in three dimensions or how much darker the picture looks with the glasses on. Rango works just fine without a conversion and annoying, darkened lens spectacles.

I really appreciated how much the story celebrates the Western genre and conventions. Verbinski and writer John Logan add some extra panache in the form of a Mariachi band of owls, which serve as the Greek chorus of the story and have no qualms about breaking the fourth wall, serving up some meta humor. Meta material is also something the story is completely fearless of using, in the form of examining the Western hero archetype rather than a straight-up riff or parody. There’s even a rather blatant bit where Rango comes face to face with someone who looks a lot like a character from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Noting the voice actor for Rango, you can probably figure out who.

When looking at Rango and another animated March release such as Mars Needs Moms, I’m reminded of the severe limitations of live motion capture in comparison to key animation. There is simply more visceral detail, life, and gravitas in the world of Rango than in Mars Needs Moms’ lugubrious and slavish digital make-up. Rango‘s tremendous voice-over performances were achieved from a radio play style of recording. This type of recording style is a tremendous way to complement the animation process, which is rarely if ever done for a feature animation production. This is preferable to a completely forced and off-putting look achieved in Mars Needs Moms and 2009′s A Christmas Carol, which put quality actors into motion capture suits for stiff and yucky looking results.

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