Thursday, 22 November 2012

Film Review | Rango (2011)

We live in an age where computer-animated features are becoming more and more beautiful to the eye and ever richer in cinematic heritage. Aside from a lone anomaly in Cars 2, Pixar are still the studio to beat in the field with a wealth of classics in their back catalogue, many of which are continuing to mature with age. It's therefore becoming less acceptable for CGI films to score points for their achievements in these areas, which is unfortunate for Rango, because how it looks and its references to films gone by are all it has going for it.

The film tells the story of a pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) who finds himself accidentally abandoned in the middle of the desert. After some philosophical conversation with an armadillo (Alfred Molina), the chameleon heads in the direction of the town of Dirt, calling himself Rango and becoming entangled in the town's drought crisis.

Rango is regularly beautiful to look at, with some breathtaking scenery and cinematography of the desert inspired by many a classic western. It's in the choices of shots and camera angles that director Gore Verbinski is most successful in paying tribute to a bygone era of film making, something which he clearly wants to do through this film. There will be much here for the older members of the audience to take in as tribute to the Wild West movies of yesteryear. The detail and visual style employed in the character design is also incredibly detailed, although I did find in some characters the intensely realistic aesthetic of whatever animal they might be to be off-putting and limiting in how much emotion that character was able to put across.

Sadly, I found very little to like here other than the visuals and cinematic homages. The story is awkwardly paced, throwing you into Rango's story in a rush, then slowing things down to a dawdle. The central story of a town on the brink of collapse due to a vital resource suddenly becoming unavailable - in this case water, which acts as the currency of Dirt - may have its roots in traditional Western tales, but here it fails to generate anywhere near enough interest. There are far too many characters crammed into the story, meaning that Rango is the only character who really feels in any way developed; moreover, with a scant backstory prior to the events of the film the amount of investment I had in our hero could only go so far. There's more life in Rango's wind-up fish Mr. Timms than the supposed romance between him and Beans (Isla Fisher).

Rango also feels confused as to who it's actually for. There are action sequences and visual jokes which feel squarely aimed at kids and really don't fit with the aesthetic look and feel of the film. Elsewhere we have film references and humour which cannot be targeted at anyone other than an adult audience, going straight over the heads of any children and even teenagers in the audience. Whilst I did enjoy moments here and there, with the film's most surreal sequences feeling the strongest, ultimately the two approaches struggle against each other to the detriment of both with Rango ending up feeling like a film lacking in both heart and brains.

The fact that Rango won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars earlier this year says more about the field in which it was competing. When its strongest competition from the mainstream studios was Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots (Pixar's kiddie cash-in sequel Cars 2 rightfully didn't even get a look-in), Rango undoubtedly managed to charm the Academy with its film heritage references and finely crafted visuals. But the story this film tells the strongest is The Emperor's New Clothes. There's nothing of substance here, but allowing yourself to see that means pushing aside the visuals and homages that sit on the surface - finery and embellishments that many seem to have sadly been taken in by.


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