Friday, March 4, 2011

Rango: Sickly green

Rango (2011) • View trailer for Rango
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for rude humor and occasionally tasteless action mayhem
By Derrick Bang 

I’d say this animated oddity goes off the rails when Clint Eastwood shows up – yes, Clint Eastwood (after a fashion, anyway) – but it actually jumps the track long before that.

Right about the time the crushed armadillo starts talking like the Dalai Lama.
Rango (center) contemplates an odd local ritual surrounding the desperate need
for water, as townsfolk Priscilla (far left) and Wounded Bird (right) clutch empty
bottles and line-dance their way to a spigot that they pray, this time, will
provide the life-sustaining fluid. If this peculiar sequence is intended to be
funny, it fails ... like much of the rest of this film.

Well, no; even that’s too far in. Rango loses its way right from the start, when its chameleon hero runs through a Stanislavski acting exercise with the help of a cocktail sword, a plastic tree and the maimed torso from some long-discarded doll.

Successful comedy requires two elements: sharp writing and deft timing. The gags – and the set-up – must have potential to begin with, and then the lines must be delivered with unerring precision. If either ingredient – or both – fails to gel, the result falls flatter than an unwatched soufflé.

And it doesn’t matter whether we’re discussing live actors or animated characters; the goals are the same. Indeed, well-animated wisecracks – think of all the perfectly timed lines and facial expressions in Despicable Me – can be delivered just as well those spoken by real-world performers.

All of which goes to explain why Rango simply doesn’t cut it. Too much of this film just can’t rise to the occasion; it lays there, helpless, like road kill. Director Gore Verbinski may know how to handle the ba-dum-bum frozen beat that follows a good gag – as all the characters hold the moment – but this only works if something funny has preceded the pause.

Absent a genuine giggle, we’re left only with lots of dead air time. Rango has way too much dead air time; it’s a total yawn. The script – by John Logan, Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit – simply isn’t very good.

Frankly, I can’t imagine what made Verbinski think he could handle an animated film in the first place. While it’s true his amazingly successful Pirates of the Caribbean series has more than an average amount of CGI sweetening, when the camera rolls each day, he’s still handling human beings. Animated comedy requires an entirely different mind-set and years upon years of training and practice ... as any Pixar director will be the first to insist. One cannot simply “jump into animation” and expect to get it right; that betrays impressive levels of both ignorance and arrogance.

Additionally, the characters here just aren’t ... well ... appealing enough. In fact, they’re downright ugly. Not so over-the-top ugly that they become cute: just flat-out unsightly. Repulsive, even. Clumsy script aside, it’s hard to get behind a collection of heroes, sidekicks and villains when we grimace every time somebody new takes center stage.

Given the way this film opens – with a quartet of owl balladeers preparing to tell our hero’s story, in a nod to Cat Ballou – one imagines that all involved intended to send up all sorts of classic Westerns and genre motifs. The previews suggested a crazed, scruffy, animated blend of Eastwood’s Sergio Leone flicks and Robert Rodriguez’s early, on-the-fly Westerns.

If only.

Whatever Verbinski’s intentions, his execution leaves much to be desired.

The narrative kicks off as our protagonist (voiced by Johnny Depp), a sheltered pet in a glass tank, is accidentally dumped by the side of the road while his human owners roar across a highway that divides a bleak and foreboding desert. After a head-scratching encounter with the aforementioned sooth-saying armadillo, the utterly lost chameleon finds his way into the gritty, gun-slinging town of Dirt, where – perceiving a chance to live the ultimate acting exercise – he adopts the name Rango and claims to be a rootin’-tootin’ master of the six-shooter.

The scruffy animal citizens of Dirt, ranging from rabbits and moles to cats and various birds, welcome this stranger as the personification of their last hope. Dirt is in desperate, dire straits: nearly choked lifeless by an ever-dwindling supply of water. Rather suspiciously, the mayor (Ned Beatty), an aged and crafty desert tortoise, always seems to have plenty of his own water. But the populace is too cowed to ask the obvious, uncomfortable questions; only a homesteading lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher) is bold enough to insist that “Something’s not right!”

The mayor, sensing that Rango will make the perfect patsy, deputizes the newcomer in a bid to give Dirt’s denizens a champion on whom to pin their dwindling hopes. Besides, the life expectancy of Dirt’s lawmen can be measured in days, nay hours, what with marauding eagles and the hovering threat of a dread varmint dubbed Rattlesnake Jake.

OK, fine; this should have been a reasonable set-up for the comic saga of a hapless hero. But the storyline wanders all over the place, with elements introduced and discarded at random, often to bewildering effect. Dirt’s citizens engage in a bizarre street-dance ritual every Wednesday at noon, as they hope for water to spout from the sacred spigot at one end of town; this line-step shuffle obviously is intended to be funny ... but it isn’t.

Beans has a habit of falling into an immobile, self-defensive trance every so often: a gag played for reasonable comic effect the first few times. As one who expects an element planted in the first act to bear fruit in the third act, I kept waiting for the payoff: the climactic moment when Beans’ tendency to freeze would prove useful and save the day.

Never happens. Like so much else about this film, it’s just another random hiccup.

At another point, despite being surrounded by hundreds of angry moles and bats, Rango and a small handful of friends somehow manage to arrest three of the moles and bring them back to town, for a trial. Verbinski rather carelessly omits the scene that explains how this happens, which is rather, ah, convenient; it violates the whole few-versus-many context of the frantic chase that precedes it. What, did Rango simply hypnotize all those baddies with another tall tale?

And don’t even get me started on the baffling introduction of Eastwood and nearby Las Vegas; attempting to integrate real-world concerns with this whacked-out parallel universe will produce nothing but headaches. I’m willing to accept that a tiny, isolated township such as Dirt might co-exist, unnoticed, not far from Vegas ... but swallowing the notion that Dirt’s scheming mayor is building an entire city of his own, somehow also overlooked by the two-legged mammals who swarm over most of Nevada? Not bloody likely.

Particularly when they’re competing for the same water supply.

Finally, this film fails in a way that genuinely surprised me: Depp doesn’t “act” well with only his voice. His on-camera appeal derives from the complete package: his presence, behavior and body movement, and particularly the way his dry, often understated delivery is at odds with his comic and often put-upon expressions. His voice, by itself, isn’t enough to bring the necessary life to his chameleon counterpart. If you didn’t know, going in, that Rango is brought to spoken life by Depp, I rather doubt you’d recognize the voice.

Beatty, in great contrast, is marvelously sinister as the malevolent tortoise mayor. Abigail Breslin is charming as Priscilla, the token little kid: the film’s sole truly adorable character, who looks up to Rango the same way Brandon De Wilde idolized Alan Ladd, in Shane. And Bill Nighy is sensational as Rattlesnake Jake: every inch a fearsome horror.

Something’s terribly wrong when a story’s hero is the least interesting character present. This rather upsets the tale’s balance: yet another way in which this film fails.

Oh, sure; Verbinski accidentally delivers some genuine giggles. Rango’s first barroom encounter with Bad Bill (Ray Winstone) is hilarious, and both pell-mell action scenes – the opening highway mishap that dumps our green-skinned hero on the road, and the later skirmish with the moles and bats – are fast, frenetic, genuinely exciting and well choreographed to Hans Zimmer’s music.

But such isolated bits are far from enough. Given the presence of so many Pirates alums – Verbinski, Depp, Byrkit, Zimmer, editor Craig Wood and others – I get the feeling that they all felt Rango would be an engaging lark while prepping for Pirates 4: an “easy” project that could be knocked off without a second thought.

Yeah, well, based on the results, I can see the absence of second thoughts. At 107 minutes, the dull-dull-dull Rango is much too long, just as all of Verbinski’s Pirates films are much too long. Box-office success may allow hack filmmakers to indulge themselves, but that doesn’t mean we have to admire – or patronize – the results.

No comments:

Post a Comment