Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rango / ***½ (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:

Rango/Lars: Johnny Depp
Beans: Isla Fisher
Pricilla: Abigail Breslin
Mayor: Ned Beatty
Roadkill: Alfred Molina
Rattlesnake Jake: Bill Nighy
Doc/Merrimack/Mr. Snuggles: Stephen Root
Balthazar: Harry Dean Stanton
Bad Bill: Ray Winstone
The Spirit of the West: Timothy Olyphant

Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies presents a film directed by Gore Verbinski. Written by John Logan. Story by Logan, Verbinski, and James Ward Byrkit. Running time: 107 min. Rated PG (for rude humor, language, action and smoking).

Every time you see the sun you hear a faint sizzling sound. Someone is diverting the water away from a western desert town. A steel guitar pangs lonesome notes on the soundtrack. Every frame is filled with dust and dirt. Is this Clint Eastwood’s long awaited return to the great American film genre, the western? No. It’s the first foray by George Lucas’s cinematic tech child, Industrial Light & Magic, into the increasingly lucrative CGI animation/family entertainment market.

“Rango” is the latest genre laden, pop culture-referencing animation aimed at adults and children, and it’s good enough they didn’t even bother to release it in 3D. It follows the exploits of a pet chameleon in search of an identity. He gets more than he bargained for when he is ejected from his fish tank habitat into the grueling desert environment of the American west.

Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise) provides the voice of the hapless hero, adding more character than most vocal performances to this lizard in the midst of an identity crisis. Depp captures minute nuances in his vocal performance that wonderfully convey the internal struggle of this actor who can create a character out of thin air, but has no idea who he really is inside. Of course, the crisis he winds up in will test his true mettle, not merely his acting prowess; and he will learn his true self.

That crisis comes about when he wanders his way into the town of Dirt. Like something out of a classic Hollywood western, Dirt seems to be held up by the last remaining spirit of its town’s people; and that is about to give way because of a water shortage that is driving all the farmers and town folk away from the area. In this story the town folk are all animals. Lizards, toads, rabbits, mice, weasels and moles make for a range of western archetypal characters, including bankers, bartenders, ranchers, ruffians, thieves, outlaws, schoolchildren, and even the lonely matron struggling to keep her father’s dreams going.

Screenwriter John Logan (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”) does a good job of intimating that everything in Dirt hinges on its mysterious Mayor without waving signs that say watch out for this guy. Coming off last year’s CGI hit “Toy Story 3”, it would seem Ned Beatty is finding a late career calling providing voices for bad guys that sure want you to think they’re good. Here—like so many of the other characters in “Rango”—his voice is graveled by the dryness of the desert. And yet, the Mayor always seems to have a glass of water at hand.

Director Gore Verbinski (“The Mexican”) never focuses too long on any one subject matter. Rango is put through his paces, proving himself as a hero to the town when he inadvertently saves it from a bird of prey. The town’s people, who were cold and unfriendly to him at first, make him sheriff. Poor clueless Rango is so into his role that it never occurs to him to ask what happened to their previous sheriff. Verbinski gives the audience a visual clue.

Soon Rango is leading posses, chasing water thieves, discovering long hidden secrets, and generally unraveling a mystery by happenstance that some would rather have left covered up. Verbinski wisely never slows the pace of the film, save for one sequence in which Rango meets The Spirit of the West, who looks and sounds (thanks to Timothy Olyphant, “Justified”) remarkably like Eastwood’s Man With No Name character from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. The frenzied pace provides an adventure atmosphere that suggests other classics, like “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.

Like many of the films of the CGI animation renaissance, “Rango” isn’t merely a fun time for children. In many ways, it’s aimed more at the adults. The western genre is something of cinematic nostalgia, and throughout the picture the filmmakers make references to other movies that only adults would know. Any movie that has a reference to Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in its first ten minutes is not something just for the kids. The plot itself is pulled straight from “Chinatown”. While “Rango” comes nowhere near the greatness of “Chinatown”—even amongst the rather smaller pantheon of CGI animation—it is more than just a rollicking good time to be had in the cinema.

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