|Ride 'em, Rango|
I wasn't prepared for Rango to be as dark as it was. Gore Verbinski has always been a director to dabble into life's bigger questions with a lot of subtle ease, without losing the ostensibly fun side to his films. But, with this being a Nickelodeon production, and being animated, and all that, I was blind-sided by the depth of the screenplay by John Logan, and the heartfelt genuineness of Johnny Depp's performance as a chameleon with an identity crisis. To be fair, the screenplay's base elements are very standard - there is a formula, and you know where the film is headed as soon as it starts. But, to the film's credit, on the flip side, everything that happens in between is remarkably intelligent.
And the whole thing feels like a painting. Gotta love that.
Consider this one of the rare CGI films that pays respects to traditionally animated films. Remember that Tangled was specifically designed to look like oil paintings and 2D animation. Rango achieves this without the oil painting angle, and does so seamlessly. I couldn't point to one shot that didn't look carefully rendered. I also had a hard time not picking out references to other films. I like movies that respect their elders. Nods to Star Wars, Raising Arizona (tell me that score doesn't have echoes here), and obviously older westerns are everywhere. There's even a certain cameo that ties the entire story together that references what the entire Western genre has come to be recognized by.
Our story is simple - a weak man becomes the hero of a small town after a couple of white lies, and discovers what a hero really is in the process. And it's safe to say that this would be less of a film if it weren't for Johnny Depp's heartfelt performance - it's truly beautiful work, and indicative of the kind of actor he used to be. Lately, he's become his own stereotype (oddball actor doing oddball stuff). But, if we think back to his work in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, or even his early Tim Burton work like Edward Scissorhands, it's easy to remember how much work he put into everything he did. He always stretched himself. And you'd think that doing voice work for a lizard posing as a cowboy wouldn't be too much; something you could just phone in and still achieve the desired effect. With this performance, I'd rank it among his best - it's the sort of character mining and creativity he used to display, and hopefully will continue to. The supporting cast, while not nearly having as much to do, does wonderfully. And it's a hell of a cast - Ned Beatty, Bill Nighy, Ray Winstone, Abigail Breslin, Timothy Olyphant, Stephen Root, and Harry Dean Stanton. With a cast like that, a director like Verbinski, and a screenplay from John Logan, the recipe for success is almost complete.
There are several themes touched upon in this film. Loneliness, what it means to be a hero, finding yourself, and - perhaps the biggest metaphor offered - thirst. While searching for the town of Dirt's missing water supply in the middle of the desert, we're treated to an underlying message that the film doesn't boldly state. The thirst to belong, and be something that we aren't. Rango lies his way to the top, and will inevitably be found out in one way or another - he does this because of loneliness, because he wants to be a hero, and because he has no idea who he truly is. It's through these experiences that he'll discover his purpose and his drive. He meets a woman as strange as he is, who knows something is off all over town, and all of the other desert settlers look to him as their savior. The pressure is on, in more ways than Rango is prepared for. The fun isn't just searching for the water and solving the mystery. The fun is watching Rango come into his own. Or, if I may, shed his own skin.
I certainly wasn't prepared to be emotionally effected by a movie like this. And I think that has a lot to do with this film's surprise success. I've heard "Oscar contender" mentioned several times in conjunction with this one, and I've seen four star reviews all over the place. Tack on four more stars from me. This just goes to show that audiences are wanting smarter movies, and more directors are ready to branch out from what they're normally known for. Edward Zwick doing romantic comedies, Darren Aronofsky doing horror, and Gore Verbinski doing cartoons... I love where we're headed.