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December 05, 2022

Rango: The Good, the Bad and the Funny

By Bernie and Sand Pilarski

Sand said:

I did not see a single trailer about this movie before I wanted to go see it. However, going to the first showing of a movie on Friday morning -- something that would rarely have been possible when Bernie was semi-enslaved by the Wheels of Progress (seriously, they were penalized if they wanted to take Friday or Monday off for a three-day weekend) -- ahem, I got side-tracked -- going to the first showing at 10 am is still quite novel to me. Of course I only do it because reviewing movies for the Piker Press is an important part of journalism.

So, why did I go see Rango, but not, say, The Social Network?

Number 1 Reason: Johnny Depp.

There are of course, a number of movies he's made that I refused to go see, Sweeney Todd being one of them; in fact I don't usually see his movies if they are rated R, because he can play some darknesses in characters that scare the bejabbers out of me. Rango was rated PG, so I was ready to see what Depp would make of an animated character.

Number 2 Reason: Animation.

I loved the Disney animated movies as a child; lamented the cheapness of Hanna-Barbera and their ilk that came to dominate the cartoon market (although Jay Ward's stuff was innovative) and applauded the return to animated yumminess with the advent of CGI. I suspected that any animated film that Depp was associated with would be of good quality, and I wanted to see.

Number 3 Reason: Facebook.

Facebook, while possibly a useful tool for some people, is to me an utter bore. I could not bring myself to give half a poop about The Social Network. Talking lizards are far more my style. (That may be why I was drawn to the Piker Press, with its Lizardman logo ...)

Okay, strike Number 3. That's not a reason, it's an opinion. Point taken.

The two points were obviously enough. Depp once again found a venue in which he could showcase his talent: a chameleon would-be actor played by a chameleonic actor, both on-screen and off-, capable of captivating his audience. And the animation was absolutely the best I have ever seen so far.

The Toy Story Trilogy has been wonderful. I've loved the Shrek movies, one and all. But the animation in Rango blows them away. Artistically speaking, there is a depth to the color saturation that is like prime rib to a starving artist, and an attention to detail like hot cocoa and cinnamon toast after finishing shoveling the snow off the driveway at -10 degrees. There is not one frame in the whole movie that isn't downright beautiful.

Having seen the film, I'll recount a new Number Three.

Number 3.2 Reason: Humor.

There is not the slightest doubt that I have a low sense of humor. The Three Stooges were part of my earliest experience of "funny." Bugs Bunny (the early days) cracked me up. And Rango, with its slapstick humor and sometimes adult innuendo, made me laugh so hard at times that my mascara was gone by the time the movie ended.

Two scenes with a hungry hawk, a hawk that wears an embossed silver ornament on his beak such as can be seen on the toes of fancy cowboy boots, were so funny that I missed some of the jokes because I was laughing so hard.

The town of Dirt in which Rango finds himself is populated by animals, of course. Grubby, mangy animals; uncouth, beat-up animals, fallen on hard times when their water source has mysteriously disappeared. Rango, throwing himself into the role of a lifetime, vows to help them find their water and their lives, tumbling along with his own fantasies ... and failures.

I loved this movie so much that after we saw it on Friday at its first showing, we saw it again on Saturday afternoon in a packed theater.

Finally, the mariachi owls were modeled on burrowing owls, a population of which live where I live, in the Central Valley. They really do, one and all, have that same kind of facial expression.

Can't wait to see this one again.

And again.

Bernie said:

When I was a kid, I watched cartoons. Even then, I knew that I had missed the glory days of cartooning -- the best toons were the old toons. The stuff they were churning out for us in the fifties and early sixties was really pretty bad and was going down hill rapidly. Jay Ward was able to turn out some intelligent humor in his animated series Rocky & Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right, Peabody and Sherman, Hoppity Hooper, George of the Jungle, Tom Slick, and Super Chicken, but these were shows produced for television, and the animation was rudimentary and, I am sure, cost effective (read as cheap). For a nearly forty year span from the late 1950's until the 1995 debut of Toy Story, animated films declined in quality. Disney studio tried its best to preserve the art, but even then, the films seemed to be getting stale.

However, the good news is that the art of animated pictures is back, and it may well be that we are in the middle of a new golden age for cartoons, driven by computer animation technology. Since Toy Story in 1995, the industry has seen a rapid evolution of process that has provided breathtaking improvements in the ability of the medium to provide startlingly intricate depictions of finer and finer details. Each new film advances the ability to show ordinary objects more realistically, or fantastic objects more believably.

Another aspect of animated features has also made a comeback -- the ability to tell a good story. Pixar Studios I think deserves a great deal of credit in establishing the new standard in story telling in the animated film industry. With the Toy Story trilogy, Wall-E, and Up, Pixar has demonstrated that animated features can indeed appeal to both adults and children and be truly engrossing stories. Both Up and Toy Story 3 were deservedly nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and Wall-E should have been. While all three films won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, all three would have been worthy recipients of Best Picture of the year.

This past weekend, the latest of the spate of good animated features opened. Rango is the director Gore Verbinski's latest work. It is the story of a chameleon who by chance finds himself thrown from his sheltered life as terrarium pet onto the burning sands of the Desert Southwest where he must face his fears and his limitations in order to survive. It is a classic story of common man doing uncommon things when the need arises. It is a chameleon meets lizard love story. It is a spaghetti western. And it is riotously funny.

There is no doubt that this story owes a lot to other works. There are times when the title character Rango is very much Barney Fife from the Andy Griffith Show, then at times Cosmo Brown from Singing in the Rain, and The Stranger of A Fist Full of Dollars. There are action sequences from Star Wars imaginatively reimaged with moles in their own version of X-wing fighters, and the malevolent Mayor reminds one of Lionel Barrymore in It's a Wonderful Life. And much of the humor is pie-in-the-face slapstick that is old as the hills, but never fails to make you laugh.

The originality of Rango doesn't reside in the story or the characters as much as in the stunning breadth and depth of the imagining of the universe of reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals that inhabit the desert town of Dirt. From the opening sequence, there is never a moment when it doesn't seem that this is the way the world really is and that the characters do in fact exist. The artwork is nothing less than stunning, and this film advances significantly the ability to portray the intricate range of facial features of the characters (albeit non-human characters).

Rango is a smart, funny and visually stunning movie. My heart may always consider the "Popeye" cartoons of the 1930's to be the best animated features ever made, but there is no doubt that Rango continues to move animation into a new golden age.

* * *

This week, incidentally, there is little doubt that we will be inexorably sucked into the theater for the opening of Battle: Los Angeles. It is the type of movie that is a drug for me. I want all of you to close your eyes, click your heels together three times and say "please be better that Skyline."

Article © Bernie and Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-03-07
1 Reader Comments
Ministry Fox
02:18:19 PM
The word ‘animation’ usually puts me to sleep. However, on finding myself in Haiphong’s multiplex, the day before I was to leave Vietnam, it was either ‘Rango’ or ‘I Am Number 4’. Having seen the trailers to to the latter and recognizing it it to be yet another formulaic teen flic, I opted for Rango; spurred on, no doubt, like Sand, by the enchanting Depp, an actor whom I have already penciled in to play the lead in my first unpublished novel, ‘The Screen’.
It was, without doubt, the best film I have seen all year, and I would be surprised if 2011 offers anything anything better. As the Pilarski’s point out, the quality of the animation is breathtaking, the humour sharp, and the characters enchanting, particularly the protagonist, an angst-ridden Walter Mitty with the comic genius of a young Woody Allen.
Aspiring writers will be particularly impressed by the first half hour of the film, in which Rango attempts to construct the perfect story, populated by archetypes on a mystical quest.
Films, in this critics humble opinion, don’t get much better than this.
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