You’ll have heard it said that computer generated visual effects are deemed to be too cartoony these days. Industrial Light and Magic, those tricksters set up by George Lucas to handle Star Wars’ tech-nanigans and every leap in visual confectionery since, have heard it more than most. Those that exited Lucas’ prequel trilogy with an irrational hatred of animation, lamented that synthetic vistas robbed live action plates of their real world dimension, covering them in sterile CG gunk that only served to increase the distance between the audience and the film’s inner life.
Given that for all ILM’s efforts, computer technology currently tends to flirt with the photoreal rather than act as a credible stand in, it was perhaps inevitable that they’d repackage their talents in a form where this would no longer be a problem. Rango, which beats Pixar at its own game by employing a standard of animation usually reserved for live action blockbusters to generate an entire feature, is a beautiful sight to behold. That sound you can hear is the noise made by the chins of Pixar’s animators as heads turn and stubbles brush against shoulder fabric.
Fans of computer animation wouldn’t wish to denigrate Pixar’s achievements, because whatever your views on the cloying content of their movies, they’ve set the visual standard. However, there’s evidence here that ILM, who were always capable of meeting the challenge, have considerably upped the ante with this picture. There’s the sense that it isn’t ILM who’ve been liberated by the wholesale removal of live action characters, as for them it’s another densely detailed day at the office and many thought they’d created Hayden Christensen anyway, but us, as the lack of intrusion from flesh and blood thespians allows total immersion in the movie and no distractions from the talents of animators. The additional latitude afforded to the virtual inkers, given an audience’s additional suspension of disbelief in such flicks, means that movies like these may become ILM’s sideline; a chance to win plaudits for their on screen achievements while being criticised for an identical standard of workmanship in Michael Bay bang shows.
The additional care allowed by the long gestation of these pictures has made this Verbinski’s best directorial effort, with a story that’s a perfect vehicle for his love of slapstick and silliness. That’s right, better than Mousehunt. You’re invited to imbibe the detail of shots such as those in which Rango’s tank makes a slow motion fall from the back of a car to the roadside, complete with shifting contents and moving sunlight scattered through the glass. The film is blessed with lots of these moments; the ability to pick out individual grains of sand under Rango’s feet, the condensation on a glass of water, fluid character movement. If The Phantom Menace and yes, even the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy taught ILM how to do this stuff, you can, for the first time, say that their existence is justified.
Nevertheless it’s the story that maketh the dysfunctional family movie and here screenwriter John Logan, finally atoning for his near franchise decimating Star Trek: Nemesis screenplay, has fashioned a funny and joyful comedy Western, with a fine retinue of stock characters.
Johnny Depp lends both his spindly frame and love of theatricality to the titular lizard who’s marooned on the road to Vegas when his tank falls from the back of a family car. Having taken advice from a flattened Armadillo on setting on a journey, he hits the desert and finds a frontier town stocked with fellow creatures suffering from an inexplicable but potentially disastrous water shortage.
Inevitably, as seems to be the law with any modern animation, there’s an intertextual dimension to the proceedings. Ned Beatty’s scheming Mayor owes both his appearance and his interests to John Huston’s portrayal of Noah Cross in Chinatown, while the Spirit of the West, whom Rango encounters on the desert plain, is Eastwood’s aged Man with no Name in a golf buggy with the actor’s Oscars in an attached basket. All very postmodern, all aimed at condom hating adults. No problem there you might think, but I can’t be the only one who longs for a day when filmmakers get back to creating their own iconic characters and imagery, rather than allowing the medium to eat itself by trading on the audience’s familiarity with their DVD collection.
Despite all that winking at the audience, this kooky, peacock of a picture, benefits from its self-aware approach to genre. There are some fine touches, such as the old town of Dirt being built from contemporary rubbish like an old mailbox and a tower with a rusted grandfather clockface as its centrepiece. Setpieces too, show great invention. The standout is a reprise of the classic Wild West assault on a wagon; recast using birds as horses, bats as planes and a wrapped water cooler bottle to bulk out the transport’s familiar shape. Hans Zimmer, normally a composer I’d punch a baby for, in the hope that the crying would drown out his aural assaults, does sterling work here, providing Banjo versions of Wagner and Strauss in parallel to the action. It’s that variation on a theme technique that gives Rango its structure and substance, while ensuring it looks and sounds as fresh as a bead of cold water running down a naked breast at poolside.