The Pitfalls Facing Marvel’s Cinematic Civil War

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie writes that Marvel’s Civil War storyline was a paranoid rightwing fantasy and a mess. I agree with the second part, but as much as I admire Bouie’s writing in other areas, I disagree with the first. The Civil War storyline was not a paranoid fantasy on either side of the political spectrum. In fact, its problem was that it aspired to be a commentary on the real world while completely failing to connect to the real life issues we were dealing with. The Civil War storyline was still a terrible mess, though, and Marvel is going to have to reckon with those flaws if rumors of a planned cinematic adaptation are true.

A quick recap for those who didn’t read the original mini-series. The storyline kicks off when the Superhuman Registration Act is signed into law, requiring that all people in the United States with super powers must register with the government. The superheroes would essentially become government civil servants with no secret identities. The law gets an especially big boost when a battle between some heroes and villains goes horribly awry and results in the destruction of several city blocks and 600 civilian deaths including 60 children. The superhero community itself is divided in its reaction to the law. A pro-registration faction led by Iron Man argues that it is reasonable to ask superheroes to publicly identify themselves and be accountable for what they do. An anti-registration faction led by Captain America responds that secret identities are necessary to protect loved ones and that registration will become a tool of oppression.

So far so good, and when the series began in 2006, fans eagerly anticipated where it would lead. Unlike Jamelle Bouie, most comics fans of the time understood that the Civil War storyline was an allegory for the Patriot Act, not about gun control. Here was a superhero story relevant to our times.

Marvel’s Civil War was a great concept but still ended up as a mess because of terrible execution on two fronts. The first problem was that Mark Millar and other Marvel writers involved in the story attempted to strike a balance between the two sides and ultimately failed. Both sides of the Civil War were represented by well-intentioned heroes on both sides. The effect should have been to make readers think that both sides had legitimate points to make and that the issues raised by the Superhuman Registration Act were worth wrestling honestly with. Instead, the Pro-Registration side becomes Fascistic to a degree that is impossible to sympathize with. Like too many other comic book superhero stories, this one devolves into good guys (Anti-Registration) vs bad guys (Pro-Registration) punching each other senseless. Partway through the story, it seems that nearly everybody has forgotten that this all started because 600 innocent bystanders were killed by superhumans run amok. The Pro-Registration side didn’t have to be in the right, but they also didn’t have to be literally hunting down fellow superheroes and locking them up in prison camps.

The second problem with Civil War was that it ultimately failed to connect its storyline with the security state issues that Americans were facing in real life. Part of this is an inherent problem of the genre. Superheroes don’t exist in real life, and so the particulars of the Superhuman Registration Act don’t line up particularly well with our world. In real life, a law requiring certain people to register their identities and accept government monitoring would seem draconian. But that’s because nobody in real life has the inherent ability to unleash massive death and destruction, toppling buildings and darkening the skies. The moral calculus is different in the comics universe, and to make the story feel relevant to the reader, the writer must focus instead on the underlying ideas and principles rather than the particulars of the legislation. The Civil War should have been an examination of the core ideas that each character represents. Iron Man is a benevolent member of society’s elite. Captain America is a New Deal Democrat who fought fascism. Spider-Man believes with great power comes great responsibility. The Hulk represents the capacity for destruction when our baser urges overtake us. And so on and so forth. How would society align these different ideals? That would have been a great story, but it is not the one we got. Instead, Mark Millar turns it into another adventure tale of intrigue, espionage, and lots of explosions. I had the same criticism for Millar’s Red Son about Superman landing in communist Russia instead of Kansas.

There’s every reason to believe that when the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes on Civil War that it would find a way to be more even-handed and avoid character assassination. It would be a sad thing indeed if Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man was turned into an unthinking government stooge, but if only because the push back was so strong, I think Marvel will take the criticism to heart and do something about it. On the other hand, I have no confidence that Marvel will do anything to make the story feel relevant to anyone who isn’t a flying thunder god. Marvel comics have historically tackled a lot of social issues (the X-Men are famous for this), but the movies have gone further and further into the realm of fantasy escapism. Maybe they’ll surprise me but…well, the next Avengers is called Age of Ultron, after all.

The Veronica Mars Movie: For Marshmallows Only

There isn’t really any reason for you to watch the Veronica Mars movie if you haven’t seen the TV series. If you have the time to watch it, I think the first season is one of the finest seasons of any TV series ever produced. From there, you can decide whether you want to continue on with the other two seasons and eventually this movie.

But for now, if you haven’t seen the show, you can skip the movie and stop reading the rest of this review. It’s not that the movie is overloaded with fan service and obscure references. It will mostly be understandable to newcomers. But any emotional heft from the story of the Veronica Mars movie will come almost entirely from the audience’s connection with characters they got to know over the course of three seasons. Without that prior background, the characters of the Veronica Mars movie will seem woefully underdeveloped.

The movie is an unapologetic love letter to the fans. Since it was funded by Kickstarter, that makes sense. But is it any good? My answer to that question is best summed as: well, sure.

The story picks up nine years after the end of the third season of the show. Veronica Mars has given up sleuthing, has gotten a law degree, and is on track to get a lucrative job at a big firm. She is in a steady relationship with Pizz, the doggedly nice guy who has had a crush on her since he met her in college during the third season. Everything seems to be on track until Veronica receives a phone call from her ex-boyfriend Logan Echolls and we quickly learn two things:

  1. Veronica hasn’t deleted his contact information from her cell phone in all this time.
  2. He’s in trouble with the law again. Specifically, he’s been accused of murdering his girlfriend who is also a pop starlet.

This was supposed to be the old life that Veronica left behind, but she doesn’t hesitate to drop everything and run back. But this relationship is toxic for her, right? She realizes she shouldn’t get too involved. She’s not going to fall back into old habits with an old flame, is she?

Well, what do you think?
Well, what do you think?

Like in the TV show, the murder mystery centers around high school politics and relationships that are more cynical, violent, and corrupt than any real school possibly could be. That was part of the fun of show. The movie expands things out a little by depicting the corrupt sheriff’s department. The movie format also allows Veronica to deliver a single F-bomb (which Logan later lampshades by commenting about keeping things PG-13).

In many ways, the movie’s plot comes across as something in between a case of the week and a season-long arc story that got squeezed into two hours. In the end, I found nothing really special about it. What was interesting to me this time around was how the movie deconstructed the character of Veronica Mars. Back in the first season, she was a revelation. She was fresh, original, and new to the audience with a winning combination of spunk, perkiness, and vulnerability covered by a hard, distrusting shell. Veronica was a character TV audiences had never seen before. It’s been a long time since that first season now, and the movie views Veronica with a certain jaundice that she quickly acknowledges.

To wit: being a teenage sleuth solving these kinds of cases is not normal. In fact, it’s pretty unhealthy. In her characteristic voiceovers, Veronica likens her mystery-solving habit to being a junkie.

In the end, I think that distance and familiarity is both a strength and a weakness for the Veronica Mars movie. We’re happy to see Veronica and Wallace hugging because we know all that they’ve been through together. At the same time, there’s a sense that the movie is relying a little too much on established history to carry itself through. If you were watching this movie without the benefit of having the TV series, you would probably have a very hard time seeing why exactly Veronica and Logan find each other so irresistible. Or why Veronica and Wallace care so much for each other to begin with. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the relationship that comes across the best is between Veronica and her father, Keith Mars. Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni real affection, care, and worry into their interactions with each other, and it only takes a few seconds of shared screen time before we immediately buy them as a loving father and daughter. The same cannot really be said for any other relationship on the show.

And I suppose that’s where we leave it. It’s a new episode of the TV series, and that’s nice enough for what it is. I certainly don’t regret the $6.99 I paid to rent it from iTunes. But to be honest, this is enough. This movie is a much better ending than Season 3 was, and I won’t be needing another fix.

Actually, Robocop is OK

It comes in black

It comes in black

So let’s get this out of the way first: no, the new Robocop isn’t as good as the original. But that doesn’t mean it is necessarily bad. If they had to remake Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 masterpiece, they could have done a lot worse than this. And after all, the original is not a sacred cow.

Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop was so great because it provided all the violence an action junkie could want while also sneaking in satirical commentary on 1980s America. In between the gory shootouts and executions, the movie also mercilessly mocked pop culture with footage of a really annoying sitcom and fake commercials for a humongous car with terrible gas mileage. We saw urban decay, the indifference of politicians, and the logical consequences of what would happen if we privatized the police force. This was what really made it more than a standard-issue action movie, and the two sequels suffered by taking the whole premise much too seriously.

The new Robocop is much gentler in its criticism, and I think it’s worse off for it. But it still has some subversive things to say. The beginning of the movie depicts a news report from American-occupied Iran as a TV journalist happily narrates about the peaceful Iranians who stand around in the background with their hands up while giant robots inspect them. The targets for this movie are American imperialism abroad, the compliant media, and drone warfare. What it has to say is not particularly new, but you could have said the same thing about the original 1987 movie. I do have to say that in the 2014 Robocop a lot of the most subversive stuff is perhaps presented a little too subtly. My favorite was a headline in one of the news broadcasts which revealed that in this fictional future, Americans are desperately trying to cross the border into Mexico.

The biggest problem with this newer Robocop is that it is PG-13 which means the action just isn’t going to be as hard-hitting as the original. Most of the fighting is robot against robot (or cyborg against robot). Whenever humans are involved, the camera cuts away before we see any bullet impacts. Director Jose Padilha is doing his best, but there’s just no way to make this stuff as compelling and tense as he would be able to with an R rating.

If the satire is toned down and the action is not as good, the one thing the new version of Robocop has over the original is a heart. 1987’s Robocop was too satirical and cynical to generate much emotional pull. We rooted for the protagonist mostly because he wasn’t as despicable as everyone else. 2014’s Robocop makes us root for the main character by focusing squarely on his dilemma and by making two interesting changes: unlike the original, Alex Murphy is always aware of who he is, and his family is still present and plays a critical role in the plot.

This greater focus on character means that the performances of the actors actually matters, and they fulfill their roles admirably. Joel Kinnaman manages to leave some imprint on his character instead of being another bland actor overshadowed by the special effects (like that guy from Pacific Rim or whatsisface from Battleship). His standout scene is when Alex Murphy asks to see himself. Using only his face, Kinnaman successfully conveys Murphy’s growing horror as his robot body is disassembled before a mirror and he sees how little is left of his original body. Abbie Cornish is believably anguished as Murphy’s wife who must remind him of who he is. The better known actors play supporting roles, and they include Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael K. Williams, and Jackie Earl Hailey.

Don’t get me wrong. This movie is not high drama. But considering how underwritten the emotional beats are in the screenplay, the actors manage to fill in enough to make us care without becoming mawkish, and the director allows just enough time for things to breathe before moving on to the next action scene.

There is no question in my mind that Robocop 2014 will be forgotten in a few years whereas Robocop 1987 will remain relevant for many years to come. But for what it is, the Robocop remake is an enjoyable two hours with just enough social commentary and character drama to be more than a brainless action movie. And it makes enough changes and updates that it doesn’t end up looking totally unnecessary. Yes, it’s the product of Hollywood recycling, but it’s not like the original movie was produced with the purest of motives either. I honestly enjoyed this much more than many of the movies leading up to The Avengers.

The Warcraft Movie is Going to Suck

Does anybody even care that the Warcraft movie supposedly started shooting today? I’m not even sure World of Warcraft is a very big deal these days any more (although I admit I’m the wrong person to make such a claim since I never played it).

I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to make this movie. Warcraft is a bog standard fantasy story with orcs, elves, dwarves, and humans in a pseudo-medieval setting. The only good thing I can see out of this is it seems the internet seems to have realistically subdued expectations about the movie.

Which won’t stop some people from complaining that the movie is unfaithful to the games. Those are times that really test my patience with geeks.

The Only Way to Make Me Yawn about an Avengers Sequel

The title of the next Avengers movie is “Age of Ultron.” And upon learning this, America collectively said, “Who the hell is Ultron?” And so I would assert to you that the slow-motion collapse has begun.

One of the most irritating aspects of comic fandom is its tendency to indulge in self-referentialism as a prop for storytelling. I’m not the most avid of comic book readers, but I know more than most of the general public. To give you an idea, I am aware that Dick Grayson hasn’t been Robin for a long time, that Marvel’s Ultimatum mini-serie killed off nearly everyone, and that there are writers named Grant Morrison, Jeph Loeb, and Gail Simone. I didn’t immediately recognize that Age of Ultron is the name of a story arc, but that’s a matter of chance. Maybe I would have happened to know that.

On the other hand, why should I have to know anything in order to understand the title? Ok, some would argue that the title is a secret handshake for comics fans so that they know it’s being made by one of them. But why? They’re going to see the movie anyway. What would be so bad about Avengers 2? Certainly Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 did just fine without the need for any subtitles. The last time we had a comic book movie with a subtitle referencing a character most in the audience probably don’t know was Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. I would imagine Marvel doesn’t want a repeat of THAT.

I understand that Marvel and Disney want to make money and that like all studios they do this by milking their cash cows dry in a very short-sighted manner. But I have a feeling that they are overestimating the love Americans have for their franchises. Who’s really excited for Thor 2? Or the new Captain America movie? Who was really excited for either of them the first time around? I know some really do like them, but do we really think those properties are tent poles? And moreover, Marvel has had a problem lately with really sucky villains. Red Skull? The purple guy at the end of Avengers? Ultron? Some of them may actually be very powerful, but that doesn’t make them good villains. It just makes them natural disasters who speak lines. Who can honestly argue that any villain in a Marvel movie lately can hold a candle to the Joker or Doctor Octopus?

I’m not going to go so far as to claim that Marvel’s movies are going to bomb. But every trend in movies eventually collapses under the weight of its own self-importance. And I think this year we’re seeing the point where the structure starts to buckle.

Everything You Need to Know About The Expendables 2

At this point, you’ve already decided whether or not you’re going to see The Expendables 2 (or you’ve already seen it). The movie basically doesn’t need reviewing in the traditional sense. All I’m going to do is answer some questions you may have in the back of your mind.

  • The action is shot much more clearly than in the first movie. No shaky cam. You actually get to see everyone doing their moves.
  • Jean Claude Van-Damme does perform some high kicks.
  • Chuck Norris recites a fact about himself.
  • There are several shots of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Sylvester Stallone standing side by side firing big guns.
  • The movie takes itself much less seriously than the first one. Randy Couture, Dolph Lundgren, and Terry Crews basically serve as the quip chorus.
  • Schwarzenegger, Willis, Stallone, and Norris all share at least one scene together.
  • Newcomer Yu Nan is a perfectly plausible action heroine. It helps that she doesn’t fight fair and is just as likely to shoot someone as kick him in the face. Also, while she is undeniably attractive, the movie doesn’t make a big deal out of it.
  • Basically, The Expendables 2 takes every criticism you may have had about the first movie and fixes it.

Cars 2 Can’t Even Jump Start a Good Headline Pun In My Head

This is the review I’ve been dreading to write. At last, Pixar has made a movie that I’m not enamored of. I suppose in the moment I enjoyed my time in the theater well enough, but even now just an hour later, I’m struggling to remember any particular moment. It just all seems so uninspired. This is the stuff I expect from Fox animation, not Pixar.

My misgivings began as soon as the short began and I realized it was essentially a sequel to Toy Story 3. There’s no evidence that Pixar cut any corners in the production, and in fact the credits tell us that every voice actor was persuaded to come back to reprise their roles. Still, I had to wonder why it had been made. Toy Story 3 was the perfect ending to the franchise. We didn’t need to see the characters again. It didn’t show off any particularly creative storytelling or sight gags the way previous Pixar shorts have. It was just several minutes of filler.

That feeling continued into Cars 2. I’ve said many times before that what sets Pixar apart from all other animation studios currently working (including Disney) is that their films are about something. Finding Nemo was about the bond between a father and his child. The Incredibles asked us to wrestle with how society should deal with extraordinary people who have extraordinaray gifts. Toy Story 3 was about the poignancy of time’s passage. Cars 2? Well, there’s something in there about staying true to yourself, but the idea gets lost in all the mayhem. For two hours, it’s mostly just zoom, vroom, and boom with lots of beautiful environments and really neat gadgets.

The story this time centers around Tow Mater (voiced with dumb gusto by Larry the Cable Guy) as Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and pretty much every other character from the first movie gets shoved into supporting roles. The movie introduces two new characters who are both British secret agents. One is the veteran Finn McMissile voiced very recognizably by Michael Caine whose very distinctive voice may cause dissonance in some audience members since McMissile as drawn doesn’t look even a little bit like Caine. The other is a younger computer analyst type named Holly Shiftwell (the movie has one gag in which only the first three syllables are pronounced) voiced by Emily Mortimer who succeeds in being more anonymous. The plot has to do with a world grand prix race which is supposed to promote a green eco-fuel and a shadowy group’s plot to sabotage the fuel and drive people back to traditional oil which they have just begun production of on an offshore rig. Investigating this group is the aforementioned pair of British spies, and a series of misunderstandings gets Mater drawn into the adventure. The plot is really quite complex (perhaps too much so for little children), but it never really feels like it matters. You can see this going on with the romantic subplot between Mater and Shiftwell. We’re told at the end that they are a couple, but we never really see why. It just seems to happen because it’s supposed to.

In fact, the whole movie feels obligatory. The moments of heartfelt character development which have been the hallmark of Pixar movies are missing here. The whole point seems to be to send brightly colored cars whizzing around at high speed. I’m sure little children will love it, but adults have grown to expect much more out of Pixar. If I wanted to see a gorgeously rendered CGI film with a thin plot, little character development, and borderline annoying comic relief, I would have seen Rio.

Cars 2 is still likely to be the second best animated movie this year (Rango would be the best). It is, as previously mentioned, gorgeous to look at. Occasionally the animators display a piece of architecture or environment that will take your breath away, and there are occasional nice little sight gags showing what a world redesigned for living cars might look like. But in all honesty, this is the first Pixar movie that I would have been just fine seeing on DVD or streaming off Netflix. If it sounds like I’m being harsh on Pixar, it may be because the trailers attached to the movie in my theater were for Winnie the Pooh, Muppets (both of which looked uninspired), Smurfs (which looked wretched), and another Alvin and the Chipmunks movie (which made me want to punch one of the five year olds sitting next to me for laughing at it). After 25 years in the business and so many sterling films, Pixar should be allowed to have a dud. But for a while Pixar seemed to be that one studio who could produce commercially successful films without becoming overly commercialized itself. Now the spell seems to have been broken.

Here’s hoping Brave brings them back on track next year. In the meantime, save your money and skip Cars 2.

Thor: Sound And Fury Signifying A Little Bit

I said yesterday that I was starting to get tired of comic book adaptations. Thor does nothing to relieve my cynicism with the genre, but it at least didn’t make me feel as if I’d wasted my time. This is probably the best movie that could have been made about Thor. The problem is Thor is still pretty weak material. There’s a reason why so few people read his comic series. Thor is respected more as one of Stan Lee’s original characters and as a founding member of the Avengers than as a superhero in his own right. And there’s a reason for that. He’s pretty literally a god, and that inherently makes him a much less interesting character than the more human Spider-Man, Iron Man, or Batman.

Anyway, director Kenneth Branagh clearly sees something Shakespearean in this tale of gods and giants fighting in faraway lands. The history of this world stretches back over a thousand years to when Odin, father of Thor and Loki, drove away the frost giants from Earth and left behind tales for the Norwegians to pass down through the generations. In the present day, Thor is about to ascend to the throne when he is provoked into an ill-advised raid against the frost giants which shatters their fragile truce. To teach him some humility, Odin banishes Thor to New Mexico and casts the hammer Mjolnir down with him, not to be taken up again until Thor has learned his lesson. At this point, Loki launches a plot to take over the throne, motivated by sibling rivalry and a craving for approval from his father. Meanwhile, Thor learns about the lives of mortals with his human love interest, an astrophysicist named Jane Foster.

The court intrigue in Asgard is the more interesting storyline in Thor, so it’s a good thing that the movie spends most of its time there. Asgard is an entirely CGI world, but it looks so grand and fantastic that I didn’t really care. People who have seen Kenneth Branagh’s full length adaptation of Hamlet already knew that he had an eye for beautiful scenery, so it’s nice to see that he can work with computer generated backgrounds just as well as with set pieces. Loki ended up being the most interesting character to me because of his backstory. To be sure, he does cause a lot of death and mayhem, but once we find out all the details of his past, it’s hard not to sympathize with him a little.

More impressively, Thor himself manages to avoid being a bland ubermensch. A major share of the credit goes to Chris Hemsworth’s performance which can only be described as “star-making.” Hemsworth certainly has the physical presence of a god among men (and his transformation since we last saw him as Kirk’s dad in Star Trek is very impressive), but he also has charisma to match. Thor is a boisterous and cocky character prone to smashing mugs on the ground if he likes his drink. He gets away with it because he is clearly well-intentioned and very friendly when he’s not whacking people with his hammer. Hemsworth ably guides Thor’s character development from an arrogant borderline jerk at the beginning of the movie to a much more thoughtful future ruler at the end. He also turns out to have pretty good comic timing as his fish-out-of-water moments on Earth are genuinely amusing without being overplayed.

Unfortunately, Thor and Loki are really the only characters with any development at all in the movie. What traits we attribute to the characters come entirely from the actors playing them. The most notable is Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin, but we also have Colm Feore as the king of the frost giants, Stellan Skarsgard as Jane Foster’s mentor, Rene Russo as Thor’s mother, and Idris Elba as Heimdall. All of these talented actors are entirely wasted in their roles, but I suppose lesser known actors would have turned them into enormous blank slates. Then we have Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. A big part of the plot hinges around Thor’s relationship with Jane Foster but it comes across as entirely obligatory instead of heartfelt. It’s hard not to snicker a little bit when they have a makeout session while the metaphorical clock is ticking down. The movie also makes the odd choice of showing Sif, a female Asgardian warrior, gazing significantly at Thor on a few occasions and generally looking like she might be carrying a torch for him.

It doesn’t help that Jane Foster is really kind of a jerk. We meet her in the beginning as she stumbles across the storm that Thor makes when he is thrown to the Earth. She decides to drive her truck towards it which is reasonable enough except when her driver starts to get nervous about coming so close, Jane physically grabs the wheel and steers them even closer. Dude, not cool! And then when she accidentally hits Thor with the truck, her first reaction is, “Please don’t be dead!” It made it a little hard for me to see why Thor pined for her so much when he has a perfectly nice Asgardian comrade (who looks like Jaimie Alexander) right there beside him. None of this can be blamed on Natalie Portman or Chris Hemsworth. They might have great chemistry for all I know, but their relationship is too underwritten.

So Thor is much better than I expected it to be, and it will earn its inevitable humongous box office opening. Nonetheless, it still represents a trend that I can’t celebrate. The recent superhero renaissance began with Spider-Man, Batman, and the X-Men, all characters defined by their humanity and flaws. Their stories are designed to be relatable on a human level even when ridiculous things like flying monsters and energy blasts are appearing around them. Superhero movies have been pretty good about maintaining that human connection up until recently. Iron Man 2 took a sudden sharp turn into a full-on alternate universe which doesn’t even pretend to resemble ours any more. Thor has continued that trend, and later in the summer we are going to have Captain America which, besides looking like a steroids commercial, has an alternate version of World War II and uses Hitler as a villain. I just don’t care about any of it.

By all means, see Thor. It’s a rip-roaring good time and a visual spectacle to boot (even if the action sequences aren’t really anything to write home about from a choreography point of view). It’s just that I can’t help feeling as if the talented actors in this movie are just barely holding the greedy corporate bloodsuckers at bay.

Here We Go Again…

I will see Thor tomorrow and post a review of it here. I’m sure it will do well at the box office and that nothing I can say will change most people’s minds about it. It sounds like this one will actually be good, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is going to be yet another superhero origin story along with Captain America and Green Lantern later this year. Then we’ve got another X-Men movie, the reboot of Spider-Man, the Avengers, Iron Man 3…and I hear an Ant Man movie is in the works. The money grubbing Hollywood machine couldn’t be more obvious, and I can’t help thinking it’s going to bite the studios in the ass in a few years. There’s only so much empty superhero action audiences will take. Early comic book movies have succeeded so well because they are helmed by very capable directors with outstanding performers. But that pool will run out eventually. At least I hope so, because I’m starting to get tired of the formula.

Rango Makes Jokes Your Kids Won’t Get (Maybe That Doesn’t Matter)

Up until now, I’ve made no secret of my preference for Pixar films over those by Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox. Now Industrial Light & Magic (the Star Wars people) has submitted a debut entry which makes a powerful argument on its behalf. Rango is sublime entertainment and announces ILM as a force to be reckoned with in the CGI movie market.

My bias toward Pixar mostly has to do with the timeless quality of their movies: they focus exclusively on universal themes of friendship, parenting, love, and loss and scrupulously eschew pop culture references. Even the best Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox films rely to some extent on modern references which end up dating them. I re-watched Shrek 2 recently and was struck by how many of its jokes probably won’t make sense to anybody ten years from now (such as a chase scene with Shrek riding on a white bronco). With Rango, ILM has taken another approach which is to pay homage to spaghetti westerns — or in other words make really old pop culture references — while still moving the plot along with enough verve and energy to keep people entertained if they don’t catch the jokes. I’m no connoisseur of the western genre, but I caught scenes which were clearly paying homage to High Noon, the Man With No Name trilogy, and legendary villain actor Lee Van Cleef not to mention an extended riff on the Flight of the Valkyries segment in Apocalypse Now. There’s a scene in which the main character imitates various stereotypical walks seen in a western town which pretty much sums up the whole movie. Even the musical cues are western staples!

In fact, Rango borders on unsuitable for small children. Not only will they miss many of the references, there are also some pretty dark themes. Several characters die (one of them on screen), the plot has to do with stealing water in order to buy up real estate, and some of the characters are definitely drinking alcohol. There’s also a Greek chorus of mariachi owls who constantly predict the main character’s death and otherwise demolish the fourth wall. On the other hand, none of the kids in the audience with me were squirming, so what do I know?

It probably helps that the broad strokes of the plot are familiar: Rango arrives in town, gains fame through sheer luck, is eventually exposed as a fraud and forced into exile, then returns to save the day. Children are familiar enough with this formula that they probably don’t mind dialogue that often flies over their heads. Said dialogue is a treat for the adults in the audience, though. The main character is voiced with flair by Johnny Depp (sounding absolutely nothing like Captain Jack Sparrow) who successfully conveys the impression of one who can just barely talk faster than the situation he’s gotten himself into. Solid supporting work is provided by a cast of names you may know but probably won’t recognize by voice including Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, and Alfred Molina. The only voice I picked up on was Ned Beatty since I had recently watched Toy Story 3 again.

Even if the story and acting wasn’t so good, Rango would be worth seeing for its visual splendor. The level of detail in the characters, some of whom are quite furry, is extraordinary. The aforementioned mariachi owls can be seen playing their instruments correctly — the camera even zooms in on their “fingers” so that you can watch. The background scenes are even more amazing, often becoming so photorealistic that I would have been fooled if there hadn’t been a walking, talking lizard in the foreground. One scene that stood out to me showed a closeup of sand blowing off a badge. The amount of processing power required to render each grain of sand flying away must have been immense, and it was almost as if ILM was daring me to pick out the flaws. There is some dissonance in seeing the cartoon antics of talking animals running around on scenery that looks for all the world like it was filmed with a traditional camera, but not as much as you would think. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is ILM after all. But it is still nice to see that they have once again set the standard for CGI.

Oh, and it’s not in 3D. This is a good thing. The movie takes place mostly in desert settings, and while the colors are bright on a movie screen, the dimness associated with 3D would have killed a lot of the appeal.

I’m not sure why Rango didn’t come out in the summer, but I’m glad it was released when it did. After everything else I’ve watched, Rango is still the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. If it’s still playing in a theater near you, skip Rio and go back to Rango.