***/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A-
screenplay by John Logan
directed by Gore Verbinski
by Walter Chaw Before he succumbed to bloat with his two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, Gore Verbinski struck me as a particularly bright light in American genre pictures. His remake of The Ring and the first Pirates of the Caribbean flick were a one-two step that seemed more indicative of his promise than the not-awful-in-retrospect The Mexican and the awful but not bloated Mousehunt. (Well, okay, it was a little bloated.) When he's right, his stuff plays a lot like South Korea's genre cinema: walking a tightrope between grotesquerie and lightness that happens so seldom outside of Seoul it's fair to wonder if proximity to an entertaining dictator is prerequisite. With the CG-animated, Industrial Light & Magic-assisted Rango, Verbinski teams again with muse Johnny Depp to send up Depp's muse Hunter S. Thompson in what functions as a kind of footnote to both Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Sergio Leone's four-film Spaghetti Western cycle. Unfortunately, it also references Polanski's Chinatown and Verbinski's own concept of an antiseptic purgatory from his endless Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.
The key to it is how it begins with titular chameleon Rango sequestered in a terrarium, imagining a better story for himself when an act of God deposits him into the middle of a 1960s "dirty" anti-western. Although the film never loses sight of our hero, its distended length and scattershot targets distract from what begins as a pretty specific existential crisis. It's too big, in other words, without adding commensurate gravity--the very description of a balloon, and this one gets out of Verbinski's control the way most of his films want to (and only two didn't). Yet the limitations imposed by the medium--perhaps the time involved, perhaps the expense--as well as a script that includes the multiple-demise of characters, among other perversities, force Verbinski to come to a point. A shame that that point appears to be some combination of the standard clichés about following a dream or that there's a hero in all of us or that it's always darkest before dawn. This isn't satire to soften the edges of the subject of the satire, however--the films Rango models itself after are to a one about nihilism, the slipperiness of morality, and the erasure of illusions. It's a far cry from a sad, deluded individual discovering his purpose under some duress. If it's satire, its parting shot suggests that we should try to have a good attitude about it, Gump-like.
Still, what's good about Rango is exceptionally good. I love the bats the inbred antagonists ride into battle, even though it calls up the obvious Wagnerian Apocalypse Now sting; I love the tactile quality of the filth in the tiny settlement of Dirt and its disgusting, deformed, decaying residents--the squirrel banker and the rattlesnake (voiced by Bill Nighy) with a Gatling for a tail, which is ultimately underused or used too predictably. Alas, everything that's great is balanced by an apparent inability to exploit that greatness to any meaningful end. Rango walks right up to the verge of being truly subversive only to introduce a flaccid love subplot (pairing Rango with lizard Beans (Isla Fisher)) that provides a conventional throughline. The picture has a villainous Mayor (Ned Beatty) who serves as an obvious reference to John Huston's water baron Noah Cross, but it doesn't have a twist to equal Chinatown's hopeless cry nor a function for the villain other than to be made to seem pathetic before the power of belief and love. It has all the ingredients for something that will ring as darkly as the hellmouth sequence from Toy Story 3 or the silent prologue of WALL·E, but it's content to just be this fabulous freakshow. Consider its first shock moment--an armadillo (Alfred Molina) bisected into roadkill--and how the film subsequently fashions it into some ambiguity about whether or not Rango has managed to survive the opening accident, but does so in the safest, warmest possible way. Rango's beautiful yet hollow, the first real missed opportunity of 2011.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Paramount brings Rango to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer that absolutely honours the film's visual sumptuousness. This is arguably the best animated movie since WALL·E--certainly the best-lit, with ace DP Roger Deakins having served as a consultant to the virtual cinematographers on both. The way the image mimics the lens refracting sunlight in an early shot of the mariachi owls is impressive, the reproduction of that effect by this presentation equally so. Dynamic range is awesome, starting at the most pitch blacks and going 'til whites blow out, and there's no banding in any of the steeper gradations from dark to light. Colours are lush and multifaceted--Rango himself exhausts just about every shade of green in his attempts to blend, all of them duplicated with fidelity here. And to say that fine detail is glassy and tactile is an understatement, though that can be a double-edged sword with some of the grotesque creatures on display. Matching the video pound-for-pound is a 5.1 DTS-HD MA track that ably supports an aggressively discrete mix, one that operates in the CinemaScope mode of placing voices directionally but not so slavishly that dialogue is constantly ping-ponging around the room. Bass is deep; when those prairie dogs tunnel up by the hundreds, the rumble feels like a launch at Cape Canaveral. Sidewall imaging, as when the hawk swoops across the soundstage (there are vocal instances as well), is astonishingly transparent.
With little fanfare, this disc contains the theatrical cut and an extended version, the latter backloading the majority of its additional material with a beach-party "coda" that segues into a more traditional sunset exit for the character of Rango. I kind of prefer the original tag--and, let's face it, Rango already has a few too many false climaxes--but it's hardly ruinous, and the new animation, for what it's worth, is finished to completion and seamlessly integrated. An option to watch the film in storyboard form in a picture-in-picture window appends the theatrical cut, while a full-length commentary from director Gore Verbinski, head of story James Ward Byrkit, production designer Mark "Crash" McCreery, animation director Hal Mickel, and visual-effects supervisor Tim Alexander adorns the extended version. Their discussion fleshes out, but is a lot more chaotic and crowded than, Herzog & Company's two-part making-of, "Breaking the Rules: Making Animation History" (49 mins., HD). The first half of this doc concentrates on pre-production, the second on production itself, including the shooting of a live-action Rango with the entire voice cast in Halloween costumes on a sparsely-dressed set--a process Johnny Depp calls "emotion capture" and likens to acting in a "Hee-Haw" skit. (It proves the folly of Robert Zemeckis's experiments in MoCap that the makers of Rango got such rich results simply by taking inspiration from this reference footage.) Attempts to illustrate western archetypes with clips are somewhat hamstrung by the cost-effective decision to only cull from the Paramount catalogue, but I enjoyed the broader description of Rango as a Don Knotts comedy--which was apparently enough to seduce The Aviator screenwriter John Logan onto the project. Somehow, in all the pre-release hubbub, I never learned that George Lucas's effects house ILM animated the film, having fostered a close relationship with Verbinski on the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks. It's interesting to watch Verbinski micromanage these skilled artists, something they're obviously not used to on a macro level, although a framing device involving Verbinski skulking around Lucasfilm in a fake moustache belongs in the recycling bin alongside Isla Fisher's inappropriate comments about Beans's rack, which only serve to draw attention to her own amply-displayed cleavage.
I actually enjoyed and felt reasonably edified by "Real Creatures of Dirt" (22 mins., HD), in which Donald Schultz, the poor man's Steve Irwin, mopeds around the desert, holding up the undersides of resilient animals of the sort featured in Rango to point out their venomous sacs and things. Did you know that the poison a Gila monster pumps out smells like oranges? I didn't. "A Field Trip to Dirt" is an interactive view of the eponymous town complete with clickable character bios, and a selection of ten "Deleted Scenes" (8 mins. in toto, HD) clarifies exactly what was reinstated for the extended version. The only restoration I object to is the bird with an arrow through his eye making a joke about Tony Bennett: even though Rango alludes to Hunter S. Thompson and Clint Eastwood, there's something unseemly about this direct reference to a celebrity. How the hell would the citizens of Dirt know about Tony Bennett, anyway? Rango's trailer plus a block of previews for Puss in Boots, Kung Fu Panda, and the Monkey Quest and Rango videogames round out the platter. A combination DVD/Digital Copy occupies a second slot inside the keepcase. Originally published: July 5, 2011.