Six Things I Like About Rango

1. You didn’t see it coming. Not literally, of course. You probably saw a trailer or a poster with a lizard on it at some point in the last 6 months. And you might have heard that it was “a bit quirky” or something like that. But Hollywood quirky tends to mean having one character look a bit like a goth, or talk with a funny accent. Rango has funny accents, and I think one of the critters looks a bit like a goth, but it also has a spindly plot structure that ducks and weaves as it seeks out a consistent story that’ll hang together. It gets there, and there’s a tinge of disappointment when it turns into a more conventional quest and chase film, but you still get to see that rarest of commodities, a film with ideas, and an urgent desire to throw them at you.

2. How very meta. Powerless to resist the transformation of “meta-” from lowly prefix to free-standing, if shaky-legged, adjective, I find myself using it at the start of the sentence – look back at the start of this sentence! Good, now you’re back here at the next sentence, reading this illustration-by-example of what “meta” means. Anyway, it’s overused as a way of talking about the self-reflexivity of a book or a film, but you’ll find few films this year that trouble the needle of your meta detector more than Rango manages in its opening scenes. Beginning with a lizard in search of a story, a characterless blank looking for his metier, the film pins down its core metaphor of what it is to be a chameleon in seconds, and thus barely needs to hammer said metaphor home over the course of the next 100 minutes. Rango gradually acts his way into a genre setting and story through mimicry and learned behaviours, but at a time when kids’ films seem obliged to spin some message about not conforming, being yourself etc., Rango celebrates the paradoxical comforts of finding a place where you belong, the joys of fitting in. Of course, Rango tries too hard to fit in and compromises himself and others in the process, but he still knows that there’s no shame in being part of a group you enjoy being part of.

3. It’s not in 3-D. I was not a 3-D skeptic – I actually quite enjoyed the novelty period, when it looked like cinema had a new toy to play with, and it wanted to show you its new tricks. But then the cynical rot set in, after one too many post-op monstrosities tarnished our screens with their ersatz, dimensionalised messes (Clash of the Titans was the one that killed it for me). The advantage for Rango is that the lack of “depth” means that it makes full use of the width of the screen, focusing on the arrangement of objects and figures across the frame instead of mashing them up into some blurry, front-to-back eye-test aesthetic.

4. Most of its pop-culture references are pre-1970. It is de rigeur for your common-or-garden animated feature to incorporate a conveyor belt of nods, winks and homages to whatever seems to be “hip”at that moment (and yes, I know that using the word “hip” disqualifies one from being hip). But within its first 20 minutes, Rango crams in tributes to Don Quixote, Samuel Beckett, Sergio Leone and Salvador Dali. While other cartoons are content to toss the bone (fnar) of sexual innuendo to adult audiences to reward them for chaperoning the kids to the cinema, this film collapses the boundary between adult and child viewers. There’s a danger that it will all fly pointlessly over the heads of the target audience; it is sophisticated in its cultural touchstones and passionate about them, too, but colourful and barmy enough to excite a childish sense of gleeful play. For those who into all of its references, there’s always that nasty little delight in picturing the faces of dumbfounded few who thought they were getting themselves in for the usual potty-mouths-and-poop-jokes approach that passes for ‘adult animation’ these days.

5. Johnny Depp is not too nauseating. If you’re already an unquestioning fan of Johnny Depp, skip to no.6 straight away: you like what he does, and he does plenty of it in Rango. You don’t need persuading. If, on the other hand, you’ve gradually grown tired of the acid-trip-in-a-dressing-up-box schtick, the useless British accents, the wackier-than-thou show-boating, the panto-damery mistaken for eclecticism, you’re probably put off by the idea of listening to him give voice to a neurotic lizard. But it’s not that bad. At least there’s an element of self-analysis to the character, who trawls through his own repertoire of tics and tongues to come up with a convincing and consistent persona. Plus, the supporting cast of great gruffnesses, including Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, Bill Night, Ian Abercrombie etc., not to mention surprising and spiky turns from Isla Fisher and Abigail Breslin, off-sets and sets off the central performance with a sterling collective effort.

6. Industrial Light and Magic did the visual effects. That means that not only is the character animation wonderfully designed, a scratchy, cuddle-free mob of scaly, spiny, hairy critters, but the textures lighting and surfaces are all beautifully detailed. One of the things about Disney’s Tangled (which has many excellent qualities) that bothered me was some of the ropy water simulations. They just looked a little cheap, and not a patch on the hand painted versions from Pinocchio. But Rango has magnificent water, dust and glass effects that at times I doubted that they were CG at all. There’s an uncanny blend of Tex Avery logic and photorealistic look that is genuinely arresting, occasionally unsettling, and it’s primarily because the digital artists are accustomed to making this stuff look real, not cartoony. Roger Deakins, who must have been practising his Western tricks at the same time on True Grit, served as “visual consultant”; I’m not sure what that involves in practice, but the visuals here produce an immaculate pastiche of epic spaghetti western cinematography, and must presumably have been guided by the eye of an expert photographer. And while you’re enjoying the lack of 3-D, and if your cinema offers you the choice, avoid the digitally-projected version and see it on film. It just looks lovelier, and even the occasional pops and scratches will dirty things up a little. The machine-tooled sharp edges of digital projection work against the rough edges that Rango wants you to embrace.

Build Your Own Review: Alice in Wonderland

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Ordinarily, I like to offer my “Build Your Own Reviews” for films that seem divisive, or those for which multiple interpretations and responses might seem equally justifiable. I thought Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland might be one of those. Writing these posts requires me to think doubly about good points and bad points, opposing views and possibilities. They can help me to equivocate about films that don’t easily accommodate qualitative assessments. Having just seen the film, my initial response is that it is an unmitigated disaster. It’s only interest lies in the fascinating sight of a film making all the wrong decisions, doggedly pursuing a fruitless, witless pathway through classic source material, seeking to reimagine but succeeding only in mishandling it. I don’t deploy such criticism flippantly, but I truly believe this is as wrongheaded an adaptation of Alice as Stephen Norrington’s excremental film of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, previously the high watermark of squandered opportunities. But it’s not as if we needed a new version of Lewis Carroll’s books. There are plenty of good ones to choose from, whether you’re on the side of Jonathan Miller, Cecil Hepworth, Walt Disney, or Jan Svankmajer (my enduring personal favourite). Accordingly, what follows is not the usual weighing up of sides. It’s more of a non-linear list of insults, but nestled within are a few forced admissions of highpoints and redeeming features, minor reliefs from the stultifying turd of it all. See if you can spot them, and choose your dosage of vitriol from my various suggestions. Where possible, I have interspersed my own views with those of critics more amenable to the film. If you also feel strongly about this film, post a comment in the section below this post and I’ll add it to this list:

  • Burton’s Alice is not as good as [insert favourite adaptation of Alice here], which preserved the book’s [insert favourite characteristic of the book here].
  • I remember Lewis Carroll’s heroine being a petulant, stroppy little girl. You may remember her a little differently, but at least she was a strong-willed child who observed the weirdness of Wonderland with detached curiosity. She didn’t learn lessons, she didn’t have to dig deep to find her inner strength, she didn’t become a mighty warrior fighting for the forces of good. She just wandered past a bunch of random stuff, got a bit annoyed with it and went home for tea unchanged by her experience. It was a supreme statement about the resilience of the childish imagination. By transforming the protagonist into a predestined “chosen one”, Burton’s film makes it into just another fantasy quest.

If you could ask Lewis Carroll to choose between Disney’s saccharine Alice in Wonderland cartoon of 1951 and Tim Burton’s new Gothic monsterpiece, you feel the author would pick the nightmarish vision over the giant teacup rides in theme parks. While Burton has forsaken Carroll’s narrative for a postmodern mash-up of Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass and the Jabberwocky poem, his hallucinogenic humour stays true to the original… The kooky costumes and creepy fantasy landscapes have gestated brilliantly from Burton’s drawing board into a 3-D world with touches of the Avatar forest about it, although most of the film would work just as well in two dimensions. (Kate Muir, The Times)

  • The 3-D format suits a reworking of Alice in Wonderland because it finds a visual metaphor for the plummeting into a fantasy world where images and characters refuse to be bound by rules of behaviour or representation. But it’s also a tacky gimmick. It insults the viewer’s intelligence by assuming that we want film to be as much like sensory experience as possible: do these people never stop to think that we might love cinema because it is a different experience, a special window on a fictional space, into which our imaginations are already diving, without it having to prod outwards towards our eyes?

In terms of sets, costumes and characters, Alice is a more rewarding film than the recent Avatar, where the incomprehensible budget was tempered by the very average imagination and plot. Alice, of course, even when made needlessly dark for this adaptation, is fuelled by one of the most outlandish imagination in Victorian fiction and it’s terrific to see this rendered by the latest technology on the highest resolution – IMAX – format possible. (Alex Fitch, Electric Sheep)

    • Johnny Depp’s mavericky, overmannered and over-designed Mad Hatter embodies only the most photogenic, family-friendly approximations of derangement. There’s simply too much attention paid to his appearance, too much precision in the makeup for it to convey any of the non sequiturs, inconsistencies and disorderings of the discontinuous mind. He’s not insane. He’s just a bit melancholy, his quirks explained away by a sentimental backstory. Mia Wasikowska looks the part – she has a cheeky face that seems to harbour a little mischief, but if there’s any toughness in there, it’s hardly allowed to blossom by the script. She is curiously quiet and timid, with little chance to take charge of her dream. We’re told that this is all a product of her imagination, but it’s clearly the product of a bunch of Macs in an air-conditioned edit suite.
    • On that note, I might ask: Who dreams in CGI? Does anybody dream in CGI? I don’t know anybody who dreams in CGI, and until somebody can provide evidence that anybody’s dreams resemble CGI in any way, shape or form, I’ll keep believing that CGI is inappropriate for conjuring dream-worlds. It’s a feeble logic that says that dreamlike environs can be rendered with clicks of mouse and software stylings. Our dreams or not otherworldly, but sideways glances at skewed versions of the everyday, mismatched patchworks of the real. The effects of dreams cannot be simulated with such precision, because our dreams are partial, hazy, crumbly, jumpcutting tangles of ellipses and half-sense. Disney has long tried to sell our dreams back to us. Often they charm us into buying. Here, the price is too steep, the goods too rich.
    • When Helena Bonham-Carter is the funniest thing in your film, you have a problem. But funny she is, deliciously capricious, massive-skulled and murderous. The Queen of Hearts was always the terrifying core of the Carroll story, a monstrous monarch with execution on her lips at a moment’s notice, but it’s a shame that the battle for Wonderland is just a squabble between two nutty sisters. Ending the film with regime change is one of the most distressing impositions perpetrated against the unruly source material.

    Burton’s Wonderland is not cosy in the slightest. It’s a gothic netherworld inhabited by shape-shifting and threatening creatures. Initially, at least, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), with his clown face and shock of orange hair, seems genuinely deranged. Tweedledum and Tweedledee (delightfully played by Matt Lucas) look as if they might have slipped out of some avant-garde Czech cartoon. The visual style, pitched somewhere between animation and live action, is both creepy and ingenious. (Geoffrey Macnab, The Independent)

    • Tim Burton’s visual style is hackneyed, self-replicating and predictable. What was once the perspective of an outsider to the Hollywood system, locating the freakish within the popular, is now firmly embedded in the formulae of the mainstream. He is back in the fold of sentimentalising outsiderdom, mocking ugliness and confirming the importance of finding-one’s-inner-strength-and-using-it-to-master-not-overturn-the-status-quo. Burton’s Alice doesn’t subvert the threats of Wonderland by ignoring or refusing to be cowed by them: she battles, slays and takes charge, finally applying these life lessons to her full assimilation into a venture-capitalist lifestyle where the first thing she does is head for another “exotic” land of wonder and treasure, China.
    • Danny Elfman needs to stop cannibalising his own work. Or at least he needs to cannibalise appropriately. The addition of quotations from his superhero scores (Spider-Man, Batman) only serves to underscore the bloating of the story to needlessly epic proportions. A musical surge accompanies every plot development, or when a character “learns” something. If an excessively instructive score were not damaging enough, there’s a head-in-hands bit of funky music that sounds like a guest being played to his seat on a late-night talkshow when the Mad Hatter does his body-popping victory dance, and it all ends with a screechy power-ballad by Avril Lavigne. Say no more.

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