RANGO - Blu-ray review

For good or for bad, this is not your run-of-the-mill animated feature.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"No man can walk out on his own story."

You'll find echos of Hondo. Durango. The Ringo Kid. "High Noon." "El Mariachi." "Chinatown." "Chinatown"? Wait for it. They're all in here. Given that amphibians and lizards are big these days--from the Budweiser frogs to the Geico gecko--the 2011 animated comedy-adventure "Rango" shouldn't have missed. The fact that it did miss, not quite recovering all of its production cost at the box office, seems a result of the film's huge budget, the saturation of the animation market, and a somewhat sluggish start to the plot. Despite its charming characters and exceptional artwork, it doesn't come to life as quickly as one would expect, feeling flat through the first half. Mark it up as a good try and in order to succeed, it may have to grow on a person.

More things the film's got going for it: director Gore Verbinski ("Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3"), star Johnny Depp, composer Hans Zimmer, a talented supporting cast, and the entire animation department of Industrial Light and Magic. They go a long way toward making writer John Logan's hit-and-miss, referential-laden script come at least partially to life.

You remember the surreal scene in "Pirates 3" when Captain Jack is in the netherworld and he and his ship find themselves stranded in a desert? That's the kind of thing you run across quite a lot in "Rango," with several scenes actually mimicking the one in "Pirates" and the rest of the movie exuding an oddball, off-kilter feeling. It's not really the sort of movie I'd imagine would appeal to young children because it isn't very slapstick funny, colorful, or action-packed; it's more of an adult-oriented cartoon with its dark, sophisticated, often eccentric humor and wagon load of Hollywood-movie allusions.

So Depp plays a chameleon in this one, not a pirate, but he's just as peculiar. He's a lonely chameleon with an identity problem; he doesn't know exactly who he is or what his purpose is in life. Like Captain Jack, he finds himself in the middle of the desert, out of place, out of touch, out of his element, whatever that element is. He feels he needs a conflict in his life to bring out the hero in him, to bring out his true inner self. That's when fate steps in, fate in the form of an armadillo (Alfred Molina), who tells him his destiny is to seek out the town of Dirt, and there he will find himself. It's a quest, much like the one followed by the Blues brothers or the Man with No Name.

When the chameleon reaches Dirt, he introduces himself as "Rango." Why? Why not. It sounds rugged, it sounds Western, it sounds like a name worthy of a John Wayne or a Clint Eastwood character. He also tells the townsfolk of Dirt--all of them desert critters--that he's a tough guy, that he's guy you shouldn't mess with, even though he is the mildest-mannered fellow you'd ever meet. Damon Runyan used the same idea in a 1924 short story, "A Dangerous Guy Indeed," and the script throws in elements of Mark Twain's "Luck" for good measure. So, it's a well-worn premise, and you can guess at the consequences.

Now, remember that conflict Rango is seeking? He finds it in Dirt, where the water has dried up, disappeared, leaving the townspeople in despair. But he hears the line "control the water and you control everything," and he meets the town's Mayor (Ned Beatty), who looks and dresses like John Huston's character in "Chinatown." That should give you an inkling of what's about to transpire.

Yes, the film appears to have a lot going for it. And you can add in a fine musical score by Hans Zimmer; a quartet of strolling mariachi owls who act as a kind of chorus throughout the film; and a supporting cast of voices that includes Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, Timothy Oliphant, Ray Winstone, and the dean of Hollywood character actors, Harry Dean Stanton.

Yet despite all of this, the first half of the film is extraordinarily sluggish. So slow the Wife-O-Meter walked out at about forty minutes in, saying it was too boring for her to watch. She was right. I was finding the film hard to get into as well. The script's eccentricities are fine for ten or fifteen minutes, but after a while they begin to grate, with much of the action seeming random and the comedy never fully developing. In a word, the movie starts out dull.

However, things pick up considerably in the second half, and by then the film almost persuaded me to give it a passing grade. It made me wonder why director Verbinski couldn't have seen what I did and couldn't have moved it along in the first half as well as he did in the second half.

"Rango" is mostly about quirky characters, offbeat jokes, psychological soul searching, and eye-catching animation. What it lacks is a coherent story line, snappy dialogue, and, most of all, forward momentum at the outset. Still, how can you completely dislike a cartoon Western that uses the music of Wagner, Strauss, and Schubert in its soundtrack? For good or for bad, this is not your run-of-the-mill animated feature.

It's a new CGI cartoon. The feature animation is from ILM. And Paramount transferred it to high-definition Blu-ray in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 using a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec. Of course, it's beautiful

The colors are gorgeous, never too bright yet never dim or soft. They are easy on the eye, and combined with the exceptionally precise detailing and definition that 1080p provides, the whole movie comes to life with one vivid impression after another. Deep black levels set off the hues, and there's never a flaw anywhere.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound is as good as it gets. There's fine transparency in the midrange; a smooth, natural response in dialogue, music, and aural effects; pinpoint surround activity, sometimes coming unexpectedly; a quick transient response; a strong impact; and a wide dynamic range. The sound is never harsh, edgy, or forward. Like the PQ, it's just right.

The first of the fairly extensive extras is an extended version of the movie (111 minutes) along with the regular theatrical edition (107 minutes). Next is an audio commentary on the extended version only, with director Gore Verbinski, head of story James Ward Brykit, production designer Mark "Crash" McCreery, animation director Hal Hickel, and visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander.

After those items we find a featurette, "Breaking the Rules: Making Animation History," about forty-nine minutes; ten deleted scenes; a featurette, "The Real Characters of Dirt," about twenty-two minutes, on the real desert animals that inspired the ones in the movie; a storyboard reel picture-in-picture, available only in the theatrical version; and "A Field Trip to Dirt," an interactive tour of the movie's town.

The extras on the Blu-ray disc conclude with twenty scene selections, bookmarks, a theatrical trailer, credits, and previews. In addition, we get English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Finally, because this is a combo pack, it contains the feature film in high definition on a Blu-ray disc, the feature film in standard definition on a DVD, and the feature film in a digital copy for PC or Mac, the offer expiring July 15, 2012. The two discs come housed in a flimsy Eco-case, further enclosed in an embossed cardboard slipcover.

Parting Shots:
Ultimately, the success or failure of the movie may come down to how much you enjoy watching a chameleon facing an identity crisis. "Rango" is not the kind of movie that's easy to define. It's clearly a comedy, yet it doesn't have many big laughs. It's also a spoof of Western characters and clichés, yet the parody is rather obvious and itself clichéd. That leaves the glorious ILM animation and the Blu-ray's high-definition picture and sound as the movie's primary pluses, and they may not be enough to make the experience entirely satisfying.

"We all know what we have to do now: Form a possum."


Film Value