Rango (2011, Gore Verbinski)


We’re all familiar with the tonal problems afflicting most every computer animated feature that hasn’t been released by Pixar Animation Studios, and even a few that have. It takes little time to deduce on sitting down with Rango, live action success story Gore Verbinski’s first cartoon, that it suffers from none of those same problems — and invents an entire palette of new ones. Unlike Wes Anderson, whose venture into stop motion indicated it was where he’d really belonged all along, Verbinski seems to expect the medium to offer him a dump of all sorts of disconnected ideas. Some of them may even be good ones, but when all of them interact, or try to, it’s a disservice to any of their individual merits, and certainly to the audience attempting to make sense of it. In short, Rango is one of the most muddled, confused, downright strange children’s films ever made — to the extent it can even be labeled a children’s film, or anything else.

Some things are disorientingly great about the film, not least the virtues separating it from the DreamWorks or Blue Sky features — it doesn’t trivialize its characters’ emotions, nor is it a constant stream of labored “smartass” gags. Like the Pixar films, it has a story, albeit in the sense of a David Lynch film; in other words, it at least thinks it has one. To the best I can gather, it’s something like: a pet chameleon gets lost after the car containing his tank crashes and after some metaphorical jabber about “the spirit of the West,” he runs across a town called Dirt that promptly turns his life into a bizarre hybrid of every Sergio Leone western and Chinatown, replete with a John Huston caricature and a villainous snake. A Greek chorus of owls announces at the start of the film that by watching we are sending Rango on the path to death, but after a lot of water-related intrigue that too turns out to be a gag; the chameleon gets the girl and has a happy ending.

But the “plot” of this film is more or less beside the point, as it’s merely an afterthought in a series of winking, self-conscious pop culture and movie references (the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles is reenacted as a conversation about swallowing human spinal columns…!?!?!) and completely confounding (and occasionally glorious, for instance Rango’s nighttime walk across a busy street toward the climax) bits of surrealism. All this is undoubtedly designed to please film-junkie adults more than their children, which may not be an awful idea if not for the Nickelodeon logo affixed to it, but it’s pretty poorly thrown together regardless — trying to get by on the goodwill of being intelligent, which frankly isn’t enough — and overlong slash overbearing, like all of Verbinski’s too-much-is-not-enough films.

Even more significant than Rango‘s status as Verbinski’s first animated film is the fact that it’s the debut full-fledged feature of Industrial Lights & Magic, the standard Hollywood go-to for process and effects shots for decades. Predictably then, it’s more a gigantic special effect than a cartoon, and in this regard it’s hardly alone; the exact same point applies to Pixar’s WALL-E. The settings are impressive, the skies and skintones and details photographically real — no doubt, it’s an achievement, but you’re going to rub elbows up with it if you think that cartoons aren’t supposed to be realistic. Rango and the characters around him are remarkable technical creations, but there’s no life or body to the way he moves; watching the film is akin to playing a rather elaborate video game. The creatures therein go through the motions just fine, but they don’t betray any significant emotion.

Then again, perhaps this is not a criticism of Rango but of CG animation in general; all these years after Toy Story, the frontier is over. The action scenes here are seamless, as bravura and enormous as anything in a multimillion dollar epic Hollywood project, but they’re also showy and tiresome, just stopgaps in the quest for the next grossouts and weirdness on the agenda. In the early Pixar films, every sequence had something to add to the story, whether it was a technical coup or not. These days, even Pixar is putting out things like Cars 2 that seem to struggle for self-justification. It’s all easy and there’s not much to discover, and one makes the sad conclusion that computer animation is just inevitably limited as an artform. There’s nowhere left for it to go, and will it offer us anything on a level with Pinocchio and Dumbo? I personally doubt it. Ratatouille and The Incredibles are likely to survive the passing years, but that has little to do with their technical prowess. The accomplishments of CG are largely economic and academic.

So of course it stands to reason that ILM’s first cartoon would just be an excuse for a bunch of jaw-dropping imagery barely strung together with a story that’s accidentally garnered acclaim because it’s so offbeat and vaguely insane. And maybe that eccentricity makes it worth seeing once, but I don’t think it reveals anything about the people that made it, or us. It’s an eye-popping, sometimes amusing exercise in total emptiness.

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