Tuesday 29 March 2011

Movie Review: Rango

This animated feature is, in a nutshell, an excellent piece of entertainment. Maybe it's not quite for kids, but adults are going to enjoy this. For me, the one thing that stood out as I watched this, besides the characters and the story, was how sharp the visuals were. This is high definition and the clarity of the images with the attention to detail is staggering. Wow, the state of the art in computer animation is something else. But more of that later.

Starring the voice of Johnny Depp, this follows a pet chameleon that is accidentally stranded in the Mojave Desert when his terrarium falls off his owner's car. From there he meets an unusual cast of characters that paints an interesting and eccentric portrait of the Wild West inhabited by animals who talk. The basic line is nerdy stranger comes to town and (eventually) becomes the hero winning over various nefarious bad guys. Well, I guess they were nefarious because they were bad. Hmmm, is that redundant?

A good film must start with a good story and John Logan supplied as such quite amply, which is not surprising considering some of his credits: Gladiator in 2000, 2004's The Aviator plus Star Trek: Nemesis, The Time Machine, The Last Samurai, and Tim Burton-helmed musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Gore Verbinski, the director that everybody should know from his work; he directed the Pirates of the Caribbean series. As such, there's a lot of talent in this cinematic endeavour.

A few references cropped up during the film and did anybody else in the audience notice? I'm not sure of the connection, but one of the funny little guys from the film Despicable Me showed up briefly in the opening credits. I've looked at references materials for both movies to see the connection, but I still don't see the link. In the beginning of the film, our chameleon falls off a car and has some amusing run-ins with various vehicles in the middle of this highway out in the desert. At one point, he is flung onto the windshield of a Cadillac. The driver is startled by this lizard on his windscreen and uses the windshield wipers to get him off. Hmmm, odd guy behind the wheel smoking a cigarette in a holder, another guy in the back. All of a sudden it hits me; this is a nod to another Johnny Depp movie Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas. It's Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in the car. Ha! Did anybody get it?

Of course, the biggie towards the end is that mystical meeting in the desert between chameleon and The Man With No Name, that is, Clint Eastwood from his spaghetti westerns. Clint in a golf cart full of Oscars armed with a metal detector seeking gawd only knows what in the sand; now there is something mystical. The voice was close but the credits at the end revealed it was the actor Timothy Olyphant imitating our silent tough guy.

Computer Animation
Way back in 1982, at the dawn of the era of PCs, I saw a short film made by some university where a stick figure walked across the screen. It was explained how a computer program drew the figure, a camera took a frame then the computer redrew the stick figure positioned slightly forward. This was very, very primitive consisting of nothing more than a figure with no backdrop whatsoever. I remember at the time mulling over how this was the same idea as cartoons. Each subsequent picture or drawing was slightly different so that when the series of drawings were shown one after another, the eye interpreted this as motion. I remember 24 frames per second as being the standard to avoid the "flickering" of images. (Wikipedia: Persistence of Vision)

Fast forward to today. Anybody who had dabbled with the technology back then would watch with their mouths wide open at what is being accomplished with today's computer animation. The complexity of the figures shown in Rango is absolutely incredible when I think back on that stick figure. The sophistication of the computer generated models to account for three dimensions, squash and stretch, even individual hair follicles is unprecedented.

What I have not been able to discover is the length of time necessary to generate an individual frame. If I take 24 frames per second, that's 1,440 frames per minute or 136,800 frames for the total running time of 95 minutes. I'm trying to remember but I've got a vague recollection that as well as the film of the stick figure, somebody showed me the program used to generate the frames. Of course, this was 1982 so how much horsepower did one of those machines have? I think it may have taken a minute to draw a single frame. Today? How long would it take to generate a single frame of something as complex as Rango? FYI: I see the budget of this film was $135 million. Good lord, those computers cost a lot!

Then there's the question of how the animators come up with the original character - a background film on Pixar showed me that people still do a lot of drawing - and then how to program that original character into a computer. It's all magic, no?

Sound and voice
I look over the past year. I've seen Toy Story, Despicable Me, Megamind and now Rango and all of them are terrific computer animations. What's curious in looking at this is that the visual part of these films is computer generated but as of yet, the voices are not. Will the real feel of a character continue to rely on a human being to breathe life into it? This was just a curious observation about the idea of using computers to generate a film.

Trailer #1

Trailer #2

Final Word
But, but, but, no matter how much anybody talks about the technique, the computer power, etc., the one factor which determines if a film is good or bad is the story and the characters. Without a good story, without great characters who elicit our interest if not our passion whether it be love or hate, a film is not going to make it. All the fancy pants special effects in the world won't save a bad film. I have to chuckle as I go down the list at Rotten Tomatoes of what's at the box office right now and see a film at 14% and another at 6%. With a rating that low, you know it's so bad, you wouldn't have it on your TV even if you were busy doing something else like vacuuming the living room or cleaning the silverware.

Rango merited a rating of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. That sums it up nicely; I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It was released on March 4, 2011 so it's been out for over three weeks now. This means its remaining time in the theatres is limited so if you decide to go see it, go see it now. Enjoy. I know you will.


[This is an amusing look behind the scenes at how the characters (the real people) dressed up and interacted with one another in order to get their dubbed voices right for the movie.]

Rotten Tomatoes: Rango: 88%
It may not be as charming as it thinks it is -- and it certainly isn't for kids -- but Rango is a smart, giddily creative burst of beautifully animated entertainment.

Wikipedia: Rango
Rango is a 2011 American computer-animated comedy western film directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Graham King. It features the voices of actors Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, Ned Beatty, and Timothy Olyphant.

Wikipedia: Frame rate

Wikipedia: Computer animation

Wikipedia: 12 basic principles of animation


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