A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 506 – Rango

Rango – July 19th, 2011

I will straight up admit to wanting to see this movie largely because of its marketing. If it had just been advertised as a CG kids film Western parody then eh, I might have seen it eventually or I might have given it a pass. Sure, it has Johnny Depp and he’s always good for a laugh, but I don’t go out of my way for Westerns and it just might not have seemed like it was anything super special. Except for the marketing, which played up how the recording for the voice acting was done, which looked like a blast. Unlike the recording booths I assume much voice acting is done in, this movie was recorded with the cast on a rudimentary set, interacting and wearing costume pieces and using props. Acting out the physical actions for the scenes they were recording for. And that just sucked me right in.

Now, we watched this on our regular DVD player and the regular DVD copy we have has nothing in the way of special features. And that is a crying shame because what I have seen of the filming done during the voice recording sessions is fascinating and I would love to have the option for a split screen (or something similar) between the animated movie and the recording sessions. It just seems like so much fun, with all the actors cavorting and playing around and acting out these things that aren’t meant to be physical. Seeing Bill Nighy act out the part of Rattlesnake Jake is just fantastic. But alas, that option doesn’t exist. We’ll have to pull out the PS3 and check the Bluray version at some point. Fortunately, even without such gimmicks the movie stands up.

It’s a Western. Let’s just put that out there and I will admit that I enjoyed it. In fact, in light of this and a few other things I’ve noted in some past reviews, I think I might have to revisit my position on Westerns. I still don’t think I’m much of a John Wayne gal, but I’ll give Eastwood a go. I’ve absorbed enough of the tropes at this point that it really would be a shame not to put them in their proper context. And I shouldn’t let an enforced viewing of The Searchers while I had a 100 degree fever color my attitude towards an entire genre, I’m sure. Some day I’ll tell that story, but it won’t be in a review for The Searchers. I’ll give Westerns a go. I’ll spend the rest of this review effusing about this particular Western. But The Searchers will always remind me of fever chills and misery and resentment. That being said, this movie is about as far from that as possible.

Sure, some of it seems like a fever dream! But that’s intentional and a heck of a lot more fun than an actual fever. It’s the story of a chameleon who finds himself bounced out of his terrarium and stranded in a desert environment he is utterly unfamiliar with. In his quest for water he finds a town, the town of Dirt, and thanks to his penchant for acting (and he is a chameleon, after all) he spins enough wild tales to impress the locals. When he lucks into winning a match against a hawk he’s made sheriff. And that’s when the real trouble starts, because now he has to live up to all the tales he’s told and stories he’s spun because Dirt has more problems than a hawk hanging around and some rough and tumble critters in the saloon.

Dirt is drying up. Less and less water in the bank. Less and less water out of the giant spigot. Things are getting dire and now Rango is the one the people of Dirt are looking to for help. And he has no damn clue what to do. He knows how to act like he knows what to do, but faced with actual problems and the need for true action, he manages to muck it up every which way. Of course. And of course you know eventually he’ll have an epiphany and figure out what to do and somehow save the day with something clever and unexpected. I mean, this movie is unique in many ways but the basic plot arc isn’t one of them.

There are two things that really set this movie apart from others of its ilk: The animation, which is gorgeous, and the script, which is funny and tight and performed brilliantly. I suspect that the latter is a combination of good writing and the aforementioned recording sessions. Every clip I’ve seen from them shows people collaborating in a way that feels almost like an acting workshop, but since it’s the sound they need, they can edit around bits they don’t want or need. The animation would follow from that too, as I believe it was done after a lot of the recording, with the actions of the cast used as reference points. The visual standards for the animation are high anyhow, with some lovely detailing done in the textures and backgrounds. I found Rattlesnake Jake, in particular, to look fantastic. And this is coming from an ophidiophobe.

Still, I do credit the writing even without the different take on voice recording. It’s a fun script that doesn’t break any new ground plot-wise but does take advantage of all of the tropes before it. There’s narration for the movie performed by a troupe of birds in mariachi outfits, playing music and telling the story but also being inside the story, coughing as dust is kicked up by the animals riding by, which they’re singing about at the time. Every little nuance of the movie, all the jokes based on the setting, they’re all clearly homage and parody both. When Rango announces that he and his posse are going to ride out! Well, that’s a moment of homage to dozens of movies. When he realizes he has no idea where he’s riding to? That’s parody. And it’s all nicely done and well-matched with the animals-as-characters concept, mixing jokes on the setting with the inevitable issues of scale.

I’m also quite pleased to say that while there is a bit of a message to the movie, which is inevitable in a movie about a town in the middle of a drought, it’s not shaped like an anvil or a sledgehammer. The movie is about what the movie is about: An unlikely hero growing into his heroism. And along the way there are messages about the environment and greed and growth at the expense of people’s lives and livelihoods. And it’s all really nicely done. It’s a fun movie and a funny movie and it’s incredibly gorgeous visually and really, my only complaint is the lack of special features on the DVD, which isn’t a complaint about the movie itself so please pay it no mind.


July 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment


July 19, 2011


This was a wonderful treat. I had pre-ordered this from Amazon a while back during a small spate of movie buying one week when I had some money to spare (things have been tight lately and we haven’t been able to buy as many movies as once we did.) Then this week it abruptly showed up in our mailbox. I remember when this was in theaters earlier this year and how I really wanted to go see it then, and it’s great fun to finally be able to see it.

Amanda and I were intrigued by the way this movie was made. For ages animators have used reference material of the actors in the sound booths “performing” their parts. Pixar started to break down the walls between voice actors when they made Monsters, Inc, which I believe is the first animated feature film to allow two actors (John Goodman and Billy Crystal) to riff off of each other while recording their dialog. Prior to that each actor would record their lines alone in an isolated sound booth. What Gore Verbinski has done here is take the performance capture techniques pioneered by Robert Zemeckis for his creepily not quite human films like Beowulf and The Arctic Express, and make something looser, cooler and hipper from it. Gone are the mo-cap balls and skintight outfits. In the making of footage for this movie some of the cast are in full costume, and some are just in sweats – whatever they need to get into character. Instead Gore chose to record the movie with cameras and boom mikes as though it was an actual movie, then turn that source material over to the animators as inspiration and direction for their work. So he’s creating a kind of live-action animatic that works almost like storyboards. It’s a fantastic idea, and clearly it worked very well for this movie because it’s simply fantastic to watch and has a very natural and real feel to it in spite of its being entirely computer animated.

It also appears that the movie was animated not by traditional animators (though I don’t doubt that there were many of those employed) but by special effects artists. Of course in today’s film world there’s probably little distinction to be made there, but I think that the fact that this is the first full film produced by ILM is clearly to be seen in the amazing visual detail they cram into every frame. The art design of this movie is a kind of twisted parody of real life. All the characters (except for a couple grotesque caricature humans here and there) are based on real life animals, and all the backgrounds and props are intricately built as well. Every surface is covered in grit, hair and feathers. The whole film has a very organic but also fantastical look to it, which gives it a sense of heightened reality that goes hand in hand with the very natural performances.

But all that’s just the technology behind the movie – what’s the actual film like? It’s a fun sort of western with an unlikely hero. Johnny Depp plays a bug-eyed chameleon with a square face and a crooked neck who, at the start of the film, is a little lonely and stir-crazy in his isolated terrarium. He acts out strange fantasies with the various knick-nacks in the tank with him until he is abruptly cast out of the back of a car though, and finds himself out in the real world. On the advice of a road kill armadillo he heads out into the desert where he comes upon the parched little town of Dirt. Here in Dirt the people are dusty and downtrodden, there’s a mysterious drought, and a sinister mayor who has been buying all the dessicated farms around the town for some reason. They need a hero, and the chameleon needs to figure out how to deal with being surrounded by people. He chooses to blend in by taking on a completely new persona – Rango.

Rango is a tough-as-nails fearless pistolero with a swagger and a drawl. He comes out of the mysterious west to deal with outlaws and n’er do wells. He’s the ultimate western movie badass – except that he’s completely fictitious and a fraud. Even so, he’s exactly what the people of Dirt need, and he soon finds himself appointed sheriff and pitted against a family of water stealing groundhogs.

This is a simple and familiar story but wonderfully fun to watch nonetheless. I particularly enjoyed all the little references throughout the film. This is not a movie for children, even if it is produced by Nickelodeon The chameleon in his tank does the routine with the manequin from “Make ‘Em Laugh” that Donald O’Connor does in Singin’ in the Rain. When he’s thrown into the road at the start of the movie he careens off of the windshield of a car driven by a Hunter S. Thompson. (What kid, watching this movie, will get a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reference?) The plot has many references to Chinatown.

This movie was just fun to watch from start to finish. It looks as though it was fun to make too. You get the impression from the making-of material that it was a congenial kind of Pirates of the Caribbean reunion. Johnny Depp brings Rango completely to life with his swagger and his insecurity and his high pitched Kermit the Frog like wails when he’s being chased. Another Pirates alum, Bill Nighy, is fantastic as the sinister Rattlesnake Jake. This is just one of those movies that, once I was done watching it, made me want to start it right over and watch it again. It’s that kind of joy.

July 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment