A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.


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 | , , ,

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