We form a possum! ….

It’s rare that I find myself at a loss about where to start these things, but I suppose what bears underscoring at the outset of a Rango review is that it’s not so much a “kids’ movie” as it is an interesting animated film for people who love movies.

The most immediately striking aspect of Rango is that it’s in 2D.  It respects the conventions of not only hand-drawn animated films, but also the long-standing rules of classic Westerns.  Yes, you heard correctly: you don’t have to pay an extra five bucks for silly glasses, dim colors, and a headache.

The story involves a nameless chameleon (Johnny Depp) who takes on the moniker of “Rango” after being dumped from the back of his owner’s truck in the middle of the Nevada freeway.  We’ve already got our first Western box checked: he’s a man with no name.  Make that two: there’s a Greek chorus of avian mariachis.  He meets an armadillo (Alfred Molina), who acts as a sort of guiding hand in the early going.  Rango ends up in the town of Dirt, run by Mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty), quickly coming up with tall tales about himself, which the local yokels eat up.  He also meets Beans (Isla Fisher), apparently the only woman in town.  Also appearing are the legendary Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake, who takes on the Jack Wilson role – the ruthless, black-hatted gun for hire – and Ray Winstone as Bad Bill, a cockney-talking gila monster.  Once Rango becomes the de facto sheriff of Dirt, he finds himself in a crisis: how to bring back the town’s lost water supply, a task made even worse due to his phony stories about himself, which have caused the residents to believe in him.

The writing in this movie is leaps above most animated features, including last year’s diamonds-in-the-rough, Despicable Me and Toy Story 3, if not only for the fact that it takes risks.  The opening involves Rango doing an exorbitant performance piece with a toy fish, a dead cricket, and the naked torso of a Barbie doll.  Throughout the rest of the film, the dialogue is clever, packed with relevant references to culture that will soar over children’s heads like the hawk that chases Rango in the post-opening sequence.  Screenwriter John Logan outdoes himself in this respect – the writing is much better than it has to be in a movie of this nature.  His knowledge (and more so his love of) classic Westerns is evident, but the screenplay always keeps in mind that the characters are talking animals (with guns and scaled-down bullets, yes, but talking animals nonetheless).  As I said, it’s a good animated film, period, not just a children’s movie.  In fact, children will likely dive under their seats every time Rattlesnake Jake slithers onscreen.

One of the film’s best sequences (and there are a lot of great ones) comes when Rango meets the fabled “Spirit of the West,” played by Timothy Olyphant.  I won’t spoil who the Spirit is, but I’ll say that it will confound anyone who hasn’t seen Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy,” and will cause those who love Leone’s films (as well as other classics such as Shane, Once Upon the Time in the West, and True Grit) to stifle the urge to stand and cheer.  I’ll also say that Olyphant, who barely alters his voice for this role, sounds just like the guy he’s portraying.  It’s absolutely stunning.

The film, of course, requires suspension of disbelief.  Why are the animals living next to modern Las Vegas living in a makeshift Old West?  How did they get those tiny guns and tiny bullets?  Stuff like that.  The thing that still stands out here, though, more than talking animals fatally shooting and crushing one another, is the one-woman-cast that pervades so many films now.  Even movies aimed at the young ones prevent female heroes from taking center stage.  Fisher’s character in this acts only as the damsel, and Breslin’s acts as the little kid who appears in so many Westerns to cheer the hero on.

Misogyny aside, we have a good film with bright colors and creative use of animated space.  It has good writing, conscious attention to film conventions (particularly the films that influence it), and it abandons (nay, ignores) the 3D nonsense sure to ruin countless upcoming films before the American movie-going public realizes 3D doesn’t work with our brains.  Above all, Gore Verbinski finally made a good movie with Johnny Depp.  There hasn’t been one of those in awhile.

Rango (2011); written by John Logan; directed by Gore Verbinski; starring Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy and Alfred Molina.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Because I can read minds!

With the above, we get a Nicolas Cage gem to rival that of “Not the bees!” (which, despite its popularity, is not even featured in the final cut of The Wicker Man remake).

What we get with this film is a bit different.  Jon Turteltaub and Doug Miro’s (and six other writers’) reimagining of the Dukas poem, the Goethe ballad and the Fantasia short cartoon, is aimed at a strictly PG audience.  Only one scene is reminiscent of the older Disney film (the sorcerer’s apprentice animating mops and buckets to clean up his mess and the disastrous results that follow), and most of the humor is material I would have found hilarious as a ten year-old.  The film does have its charm, however.  Choosing Baruchel as the proverbial “chosen one” is somewhat inspired, as are several other characters.  Well, one other character: Drake Stone (Toby Kebbell), a secondary antagonist in a movie with way too many bad guys.  Kebbell gets to have fun with this role, parodying modern flash-artists who give illusionists a bad name (i.e. Criss Angel), and easily stealing the show.    Alfred Molina also stars as Horvath, the main baddie, who unfortunately remains fairly one-note throughout.  Par for the course in a film made for children.

But is it good for children?  I’m not sure.  Early on, Molina hurls a knife through a windshield and kills a guy.  Later, he murders a twelve year-old girl (albeit off screen).  I dug this stuff when I was younger, if not for anything but the laughs generated from annoying people getting theirs, but I’m curious as to what this onscreen behavior in a film with a very specific audience is advocating.  Sure, Molina plays the “evil” character, but everyone wants to play the “bad guys” in Hero Quest, don’t they?  Is Hero Quest even in print anymore?  Probably a rhetorical question.

Ultimately, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is clumsy film-making; the plot contains more holes than a Lorraine Swiss, the editing is choppy (as though the editors were rushed to shorten the film), and the characters are nothing more than the usual suspects in a film of this type – except Kebbell, who seems oddly out of place with his East-end accent and fourth-wall-breaking lines, including “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” (a throwback to the original Star Wars) which gets the film’s biggest laugh.  Despite all that, Cage plays his role with the usual enthusiasm and seriousness, and the audience can never once doubt that he at least finds great importance in this story’s action.

It’s a good time at the movies, with the obligatory post-credits hook for a sequel (which doesn’t quite make up for the amount of unresolved plot details).  Worth seeing with kids or good-humored friends?  Definitely.  I did have to shake my fist at the Product Placement Gods, however, when Cage brings to life a stone eagle perched atop the Chrysler building and flies it into the night…in four different scenes.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010); written by Doug Miro; directed by Jon Turteltaub; starring Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina and Toby Kebbell.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Mahmoud Ahma-Gyllenhaal-ejad

This is what I’m talking about: a game-based film with reputable actors, engaging action, decent dialogue, good-looking CG (if any), and Uwe Boll nowhere near it.  Thanks to Mike Newell and Jerry Bruckheimer, the next filmmakers who adapt a game to film may try a little bit harder.

I’ve never been one for game-to-film (nor book-to-film, for that matter) adaptations.  I believe that games are games for a reason, and as a writer, that books are written text for a reason.  But since nothing I say will stop these money-magnet films from being made, no matter the quality, I keep going out to see the ones that pique my interest (I’m looking at you, The King of Fighters).  Jake Gyllenhaal mentioned in an interview earlier this year that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time would change the way people looked at game-to-film movies, i.e. they would now be looked at as real films instead of kitschy novelty acts.  This film does that, albeit still giving you what you’d expect from a film of the genre: lots of battles, CG-assisted parkour, muscly heroes, etc.

The cast is a good place to start.  I realized this film was going to be something different when an early scene featured Ben Kingsley, Jake Gyllenhaal and Toby Kebbell in the same room.  Kingsley, a veteran, gives the rest of the (much younger) cast plenty of breathing space until his pivotal scenes (which start about halfway through the movie).  Gyllenhaal plays Prince Dastan (yup, he’s got a name now) as a likable Aladdin-like troublemaker who is always undermining his family but manages to stay on the side of the audience.  Kebbell, best-known as druggie rockstar Johnny Quid in Guy Ritchie’s excellent RocknRolla, has his first meaty role in a while here, playing Dastan’s older brother and head of the Persian army, Garsiv.  The film also features the lovely Gemma Arteron, who is really coming into her own as an actress but also making a habit of being in blockbuster fantasy reimaginings (see Clash of the Titans – or better yet, don’t – she plays a good role in that film but her screen time is stomped out by Sam Worthington’s “boring hero” act).  Arteron plays Princess Tamina, a ruler with some knowledge of pagan magic.  Alfred Molina also appears in an amusing role as an oddball who races ostriches (“every tuesday and thursday”).

The film is a surprisingly fair (and fictional) portrayal of the people who are now Iranians (unlike the embarrassing 300, a myspace/macho man film which depicts the Persians as deformed creatures of pure malice).  I can’t ignore the fact that the Persians are all played by white actors with English accents, but I’ll take what I can get from Hollywood these days.  The film could have used more ethnic characters in Persian roles, but it’s nearly enough that the Persian government isn’t portrayed as morally corrupt or otherwise reprehensible.  The search for Alamut’s “secret weapons” and the absence thereof is largely an allegory to U.S.’s search for “weapons of mass destruction,” which we won by simply having them not exist…I digress.  Thankfully, in the film, not too much focus is spent on this.

The on-location sets are great and the art direction is excellent, despite the fact that the costumes are made more from the standpoint of “cool art direction” and not from real-life source material.

The story is your standard popcorn fare: orphan gets mixed up in something big, ends up in a battle, touches a magical macguffin, gets framed for something and goes on the run with a beauty who can’t stand him.  The actors, however, make this plot very easy to swallow despite how many times you’ve seen it, and the plot takes interesting turns especially near the end.  If you haven’t seen the trailers and promos, it’s not immediately obvious that Kingsley will turn out to be the villain (although he wouldn’t be in a film without a large role), and there are even some other interesting bad guys in the form of the Hassansins (or Hashshashins- from which the word “assassin” is thought to originate), based on the historical group of Muslims who split from the Fatimid Empire.  Their use of throwing darts and poisons is only myth, but it serves the nature of this film well, and helps take the responsibility of action scenes that will impress teenagers away from the 66-year-old Kingsley.

As far as the source material, the film isn’t based on a specific story from one of the games, but it takes reference material from each of the biggest titles and throws them in for fun (and you don’t have to be familiar with it at all to get the full enjoyment).  The parkour and climbing scenes mimic what we love best about the Prince series; the swordfight with a guy who looks peculiarly like the guy you fight at the end of the original game; the Sands of Time themselves; and the relationship dynamics of Dastan/Tamina echo the newer game (the Xbox 360 version, not the movie tie-in).


In closing, this is a fun film if you just want action and stock dialogue, but is also engaging enough for the film buff (or if you don’t like that term, which I’m starting not to as much because I’m realizing I don’t know all of its contexts, we’ll say “serious filmgoer” or “cinema veteran”).  The acting is solid, the actors seem like they want to be there (unlike many films of this type), the use of “magic” has appropriate focus and doesn’t ruin everything, and even the vaguely-explained plot twist at the end (which almost cheats, but you can judge) provides a satisfying experience.  Perhaps if they make a sequel, we’ll get actual ethnic characters?  Oy, let’s not get too progressive now.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010); written Boaz Makin and Doug Miro; directed by Mike Newell; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arteron, Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina.

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