Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rango & the Animated Onslaught of 2011

The altogether strange and hopelessly precious animated western Rango makes an interesting case for itself: how can a film so visually interesting and affectionately rendered be ever so dull?  It's the story silly.  And on that end, the Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) directed, John Logan (The Aviator) scripted animated fable doesn't really have one; it's all smoke and mirrors, a cavalcade of visual gags (a few of them admittedly endearing), a vocal showcase for Johnny Depp, who needn't actually appear on celluloid to ham it up, a slight observation of eco-friendliness and greed, but nothing can hold it all together.  It's as if the filmmakers forgot somewhere down to road that a plot might be essential to keep things going, so every third scene or so, they tread it lightly forward, more interested in sights along the way.  Which would be fine if they were any good.  Instead it's a dry (hopelessly dry) picture about lizards and slimy things and the silly wars waged between.  Yet there's something that rubbed me the wrong way about this exceedingly violent send-up of westerns.  I can deal with the flat jokes and forced irony, but really this film is incredibly violent, as all the reptilian heroes of the film are packing serious weapons.  And this is intended for children.  Yeep!

The lackadaisical mediocrity of Rango makes me wonder if the animation boon of the last fifteen years is starting to fade away.  As a devout junkie of the medium, I sincerely hope not, and again it's not particularly far to blame one less than stellar film for the doom of an entire art form, but the options especially this year give me cause for alarm.  In 1995, when Pixar revolutionized the medium with the first Toy Story, it's impression was so indelible one can argue it changed modern filmmaking forever.  With the great success of Pixar, and it's wondrously original (key word: original) products they've achieved unparalleled success both commercially and artistically, as well as a butt load of Academy Awards, and two Best Picture nominations.  The second tier was DreamWorks, whose first Shrek and last year's How to Train Your Dragon reminded that they can compete with the all mighty and make artistically viable films too, however they're sequel-leaden track record has a few smudges.  Even other studios found success in the last ten years, including Universal (Despicable Me) and Warner Bros. (Happy Feet.)  The last decade even included great specialty animated fare with Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Triplets of Belleville, Persepolis, and The Illusionist-- all of which were Oscar nominated for animated feature, and commercial successes in their own right.

But the future looks grim, at least this year.  The biggies coming are way are Cars 2 from Pixar, a sequel (the only film they've franchised other than Toy Story), which comes with a whimper instead of grand expectations.  In the great consensus, and in my biased opinion, it's the least of the Pixar greats, not formerly horrible, but a spot in a perfect record of unmatched quality.  It also speaks volume about certain greediness-- rumor has it that the Cars merchandise is so so lucrative that that was the agenda behind number two.  The other giant of 2011 is DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda 2, yet another sequel.  Remember the reason why animation got the modern boon it did was because the vast majority of the products were original, that can never be forgotten.  On that end, Rango is indeed original, but it's also shallow and bad.  Of course, to put things into perspective, we always romanticize the past and fear the worst for the future-- movies in the 1940s weren't all classics, those are just the ones we remember.  As a junkie of the medium, I pray it hasn't lost it's mojo.

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