Review: Verbinski's 'Rango' is Visually Stunning, But Narratively Dry
by Jeremy Kirk
March 4, 2011
You can tell early on in Rango that it was put together by a live-action director. Or at the very least, the frames were passed by a live-action cinematographer. In fact, with Rango, both of these are the case. Gore Verbinski brings his sense of Pirates of the Caribbean adventure to every last frame of the animation, and famed cinematographer Roger Deakins gives depth and composition to each of those animated frames. This results in Rango having a texture about it, a tangibility to every aspect which, when combined with the stellar voice performances and an inventive way of actually executing every shot, gives the film some of the most incredible looking animation in recent memory. Maybe of all time.
Johnny Depp plays the titular character. Actually, at the beginning, he's not all that titular, but we'll just refer to him as Rango for brevity's sake. Rango is, in fact, a domesticated lizard with a penchant for the theater. He enacts Shakespeare in his glass domicile, rattling off lines of memorized dialogue and stage blocking to the plastic toys that keep him company, and generally acts as if he's out of his mind. That is until the vehicle he is being transported in swerves on a desert road sending Rango and his home out the back window. The box shatters, and Rango, perfectly satisfied with the domesticated lifestyle he has been living, finds himself in the middle of the barren desert.
In search of water, he comes across the town of Dirt where water is the ultimate form of currency. There's just one problem. The water in and around Dirt is disappearing. Rango, after a slight run-in with some local thugs, creates an elaborate back-story for himself - I did say he liked theatrics - and gives himself that titular name and also becomes the town sheriff thanks to the mayor of Dirt, voiced by Ned Beatty. As the new law in them there parts, Rango takes it upon himself to uncover the mystery surrounding this missing water.
It should be noted how Verbinski pulled off Rango's execution. He essentially shot the film live action with all of the actors acting out their parts on a sound stage. He then went in with his team of computer animators and crafted the film we see now. What this does is allow every character to have naturalistic movement, to provide a sense of realism to each of them that almost makes you forget you're even watching talking animals.
At the head, Depp engulfs his role. His voice fluidly comes from the lizard's mouth, and you can truly see the actor's facial movements being supplanted onto this animated creation. It's a spectacular feeling that is generally left seen in some of the better motion capture creations, but it comes from an animated creation in the middle of a fully animated environment. This immerses you even deeper in the world of Rango to the point when you see a sun setting or water flowing, you don't even question it. It truly is a remarkable feat how the enormity and complexity of this world has been executed so flawlessly.
Sadly, the same can't be said for every aspect found in Rango. There's a lightness to the story here. There has to be. It's a film about talking animals, and, unless your Orwell, you're pretty much required to turn on the kiddie charm when dealing with such things. The humor in Rango doesn't always work, and more often then not it's elicited from Rango (read: Johnny Depp) acting goofy. He screams. He makes odd faces. He generally throws in little punches at the end of each scene that is both unnecessary and almost eye-rolling in nature. At least Depp gives it his all and almost allows a bit of forgiveness for the screenplay trying too hard.
The influences in Rango sit tall and proud, for the most part. Vervinski and screenwriter John Logan have made an animated film for lovers of Westerns. Not just any one kind of Western, either. There are references from John Ford films and Sergio Leone films alike, a spectrum from sweeping to Spaghetti that makes any fan of the genre giddy. A cameo late in the film, both in terms of character and even voice, packs a true "wow" moment in and even gives you hope Verbinski might be on board for an animated continuation of the Man With No Name trilogy.
Hans Zimmer's score, though, isn't quite so palatable. In fact, it's pretty much on the nose with the Morricone scores it's referencing. There are scores from other films that almost seem copied and pasted into Rango almost distractingly so more often than not. It's a small problem in Rango, but one that doesn't go unnoticed.
The surrealism Verbinski injects into this film is quite welcome, though. The characters, though visually stunning to observe, don't exactly allow a connection to be made from the audience on any empathic level. You find yourself immersed into their world, gazing at the beauty and spectacle of the desert landscape, but as far as bonds go between audience and character, that well is about as dry as Dirt itself. It comes from the goofiness of its lead character, the obviousness of some of Logan's influences - Chinatown being a big one - and the feeling Verbinski was aiming for with the broad scope of Westerns more for environment than character development. It's only when the surrealism comes into play, when dream sequences pull the real strangeness out of Rango's story, that the balance between immersing characters and immersing settings seem to match up. It's just on the wrong end of it.
Maybe Rango is better suited watched as a silent film, with the volume turned down so the amazing visuals don't play into any story whatsoever. The characters here aren't out-and-out bad. Anything that looks this beautiful can't be passed by without a second glance. However, the belief that Rango could have been something better, something more elaborately crafted in regards to story, something narratively as well as visually captivating, can't be disregarded. Rango might be firing a six-shooter, but its chambers clearly aren't all loaded.
Jeremy's Rating: 6.5 out of 10