‘Rango’: On the trail of animation’s outlaw future?

Dec. 04, 2011 | 9:48 a.m.

OSCARS SEASON

Will “Rango” ride off into the sunset with an Academy Award? The Envelope is the awards insider for the Los Angeles Times and features the work of our Hero Complex writers. Here’s a look at one story from the upcoming animation issue of The Envelope; this one looks at the Gore Verbinski western that won over critics and should be a contender in the now-underway Oscar season.

"Rango" (Paramount Pictures)

When you think of Johnny Depp it’s hard not to think of Tim Burton — the movie star and director tandem have worked on seven feature films together — but with the success of “Rango”  it may be time to more carefully consider the collaboration of Depp and Gore Verbinski, the soft-spoken popcorn auteur who has now made four movies with the actor since 2003 and is now preparing a fifth.

Depp says the two directors will never be mistaken for each other, but that they do share a certain skill for making the real world feel especially animated and making animated worlds reach for an unexpected reality. Depp made three “Pirates of the Caribbean” films with Verbinski and the two will reunite (after considerable turbulence in the corner offices of Disney) for the 2013 revival of “The Lone Ranger,” but the actor said working with the filmmaker on the animated “Rango” was especially enlightening, just like working with Burton on 2005′s “The Corpse Bride.”

“Gore and Tim are very, very different but there is a similar thing in the incredible arena that they build and that they allow the actors to go into, a place where the actors can feel free to go ape,” Depp said. “They rein it in, hone it and make it special and pay close attention to the details. So there’s this freedom they both create and an organic approach. Gore amazed me right away with his technical ability … he knows cinema backwards and forward and he’s completely unafraid. When I saw ‘Rango’ I was pretty stupefied – it was unlike anything I had ever seen before.”

Johnny Depp at premiere of "Rango" on Feb. 14, 2011. (Gus Ruelas/Reuters)

Verbinski’s knowledge of cinema was on full display in “Rango,” the first animated feature film from Paramount Pictures and the first created by Industrial Light & Magic, the esteemed visual effects house. In the film, Depp gives voice to a thespian chameleon who ends up in a savage town called Dirt where a six-shooter drama unfolds with nods to “High Noon,” “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “Destry Rides Again” and a dozen other saddlebag classics. With especially scabby characters (like a chicken with an arrow through its eye) and existential subplots, “Rango” was defiantly “un-cute” in this era of animation blockbusters defined by heartfelt appeal and a tidy, toy-driven aesthetic.

More than that, Verbinksi went against the conventional approach of animation today — instead of recording voices from voice actors who worked alone in the studio, he put his ensemble together on a soundstage with a 40-foot-long wooden saloon bar, whiskey glasses and swinging doors and even brought in a chuck wagon to help the cast ground their performance in the dusty territories of their imagination.

More than that, Verbinski sees a new frontier in animation where audacious outlaws may finally win. He said R-rated animation projects (such as David Fincher’s discussed adaptation of “The Goon“) may be pioneer projects to watch.

“There’s so much you can do in animation, and maybe what’s interesting is a movie where you don’t bring your 6-year-old,” Verbinksi said, adding that the the animation legacy of Ralph Bakshi and “Heavy Metal” may be a compass point for Hollywood as far as mature audience ambitions. “You can tell so many stories. I think where it’s going is very interesting if we let it be.”

– Geoff Boucher

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