REVIEW: Gore Verbinski Loves the Uglies in Rango
When it comes to animation, kids like bright colors, and often adults do too. That's just one reason to applaud Gore Verbinski's Rango for having the courage of its convictions: Once you get past the ho-hum candy-color-pop of the opening sequence, the movie's palette unfolds in various shades of sandy ochre, earth taupe, thundercloud gray and many, many permutations of mud brown. I wasn't sure if I wanted to watch Rango or wear it.
In the end I'm still not sure, but I will say that Verbinski has made an animated feature unlike any other on the current mainstream landscape: For a big-budget animated picture, Rango sure is an odd little varmint. This is a movie populated with dusty looking one-eared rabbits, ugly mole-type creatures with wrinkly dingle-dangles of skin where their noses should be, and mouse children whose enormous eyes and tiny, nibbling lips suggest a Night Gallery version of a Keane painting. In terms of character design, the star of the movie -- the Rango of the title, a scrawny green lizard with a crooked neck, who has temporarily borrowed the voice of Johnny Depp -- is the most conventional of the lot. The rest of them are like refugees from a Sam Peckinpah finale, ragtag survivors of a Gatling-gun shootout, with missing body parts and dust permanently pressed into the creases of their worried little faces.
That said, Rango should be more exhilarating and wondrous than it is: The chief problem is that its character design leaves its wiggly-waggly plot in the dust. (The screenplay is by John Logan, from a story by Logan, Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit.) As the movie opens, Rango is banished from his life in a not-so-cushy aquarium (his only companions are a mechanical plastic fish, a tiny fake palm tree and a headless Barbie) and bounced out into the middle of the desert, where there's not a drop of water to be found. He does meet a feisty, neurotic young lizard maid named Beans (Isla Fisher), who captivates him almost immediately with her beady stare and stand-up fainting spells. He follows her to her troubled town, a dried-out burg with the brilliantly descriptive name of Dirt, which, as luck would have it, is badly in need of a sheriff. The locals at the dried-up town saloon -- an assortment of doubters and ne'er-do-wells from the rat, bunny, mole, amphibian and bird families -- eye Rango suspiciously, in some cases with only one eye, if that's all they've got. When they threaten his skinny ass, he saves himself by spinning a tall tale about wiping out a whole gang of baddies with a single bullet. Before long he's met with the local mayor (a crinkled turtle in a -- why not? -- motorized wheelchair, voiced by Ned Beatty) and obtained his own dented sheriff's badge, which he displays proudly on the chest of his filthy, tattered red union suit (which looks exactly like the one Jeff Bridges wore in True Grit, except computer-animated).
The town of Dirt is out of water; Rango needs to get it, though there are not-so-veiled references to the fact that in this neck of the woods, water represents power: "Control the water and you control everything," says one devious character who has probably seen Chinatown, as Verbinski certainly has. Rango is filled with references that will go straight over the kiddies' heads: There's a Hunter S. Thompson drive-by, a Clint Eastwood doppelganger makes a brief appearance, and Hans Zimmer's score is affectionately front-loaded with lots of phony Morricone. But Verbinski is smart about his pop-culture references: They're tossed-off and casual, not sleek and injection-molded like those of the ever-more-exhausting Shrek franchise. And anyway, he's more faithful to a vibe than to any specific reference points. Verbinski isn't mindlessly aping the spaghetti westerns of those double Sergios, Leone and Corbucci -- it's more that he's just allowed their spirit to flow into his movie's bloodstream.
In true lizard fashion, Rango takes a while to get moving, though I was bored during the supposedly peppy (and, again, extremely colorful) opening sequence, and began to perk up only as the colors got muddier and the action began moving a bit more creakily. Still, the plot is somewhat dense and unruly, probably more so than it needs to be. Verbinski is best known for the Pirates of the Caribbean pictures, the last of which was so dumb and aggressively mechanized, it made the amusement-park ride the franchise was based on seem positively Bressonian.
Elaborate plotting may not be Verbinski's strong suit. But if my interest in the story flagged, I couldn't take my eyes off the movie's assortment of weird, unsightly, mismatched-Garanimal characters, many of whom have hair sprouting out of all the wrong places. Disappointed prospectors with sunken eyes, skinny schoolmarms who wail, "We're all gonna dah!," a magnificent rattlesnake villain with venom in his voice (courtesy of Bill Nighy) -- the parade of misfits in Rango is so inventive and bizarre that it just may sustain you, as it did me, through the story's saggy spots.
The textures and details here are remarkable: Rango's skin is an iridescent pebbly blue-green; his tiny nostrils contract and flare with practically every breath -- I wanted to reach out and stick my fingers into them (though I'm not sure what that says about me). Verbinski and his animation team relish those details, lavishing a great deal of care on every wriggling naked nose and rotting yellow tooth, and the characters bloom in the bright, hot sunlight of all that attention. To paraphrase something Quentin Tarantino once said about Sergio Corbucci, Verbinski loves the uglies. They return the favor by looking almost beautiful.