FILM FORTNIGHT: Rango

When it came out, Rango quickly divided critics; some praised its attempt to breath some originality into the world of children’s cinema or its sharp and somewhat tongue-in-cheek reimagining of the classic western, whilst others just found it plain old boring, without being engaging enough for anything interesting to leap out at them. A few even took the opportunity to comment on the trend of an established screen star (in this case Johnny Depp as the title role, although Bill Nighy also has a typically charismatic place as bad guy Rattlesnake Jake) taking on a voice acting job in order to win the film attention, rather than sticking to career voice actors, so short of stuff were they to talk about.

Personally, I don’t know quite where they were coming from with this, because whilst Rango is many things boring is not among them. Admittedly, its plot is hardly the path less travelled; our title character is a domestic chameleon who, upon being dumped unceremoniously out of his comfortable terrarium existence accidentally defeats a hawk and is elected sheriff of a rural ‘old west’ town with a water crisis, before the requisite high jinks and moral lesson or two. Basically, think ‘Flushed Away’ with the water situation reversed and you’re mostly there. However, around this basic premise director Gore Verbinski spins a genuinely deep and relative rollercoaster of a story, ranging from one of the most fist-pumpingly fun chase sequences I’ve seen in any film (Ride of The Valkyries blasting out at the requisite 11 at all appropriate moments as the dive bombers swoop in; yeah it gets kinda random in places) to a group of 4 owls simultaneously fulfilling the roles of orchestra and narration who spend most of the film talking about imminent death (although telling you that is probably less of a spoiler than this caveat is).* That these two scenes are both able to exist in the same film is indicative of the near-constant contrast between the film’s darker, edgier undertones that are the real driving force of the plot and the more action- & humour-based sequences; a contrast that is, however, a sharp one, making the whole business feel like two plots that Verbinski has tried to get running in parallel.

*Weirdly, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the theatre version of War Horse (aside note for all people within reach of London; go and see the theatre version of War Horse), which also has a bloke whose sole job is to add some suitable musical accompaniment to the required scenes. Dude is seriously awesome though.

Was Verbinski successful? Well… kind of. On the one hand we have the fact that the action is pretty damn good in a lot of places, the humour and slapstick broadly speaking well-timed and funny, and that the film’s darker & deeper sequences feel genuinely profound and meaningful. Combine that with some almost surprisingly well-done and realistic (well, for a bunch of stylised talking animals anyway) characters, and what is almost certainly the single best animation, graphical quality and overall visual design of any film ever made (yes, I went there), and it’s hard to argue with the quality of Verbinski’s execution of this project.

No, the problem lies less with the film’s content and more with how it all fits together. On occasion, the film’s more subtle jokes (the way it characterises ‘The Spirit of the West’ in a modern light being one good example) are able to exist in perfect harmony with its more meaningful side, and everything (both goofy and meaningful) is unquestionably well-done. On the other hand, the contrast between comic and serious is on occasion not merely sharp but almost painful to watch, each one ruining the other in equal measure. Whether the attempt to join these two tones together was a producer’s decision to try and force the film into a more formulaic, ‘family-friendly’ style, whether that’s the only way the screenwriter could think to tie in all the bits and pieces, or whether Verbinski just had a few jokes he really, really wanted to use is hard to identify, but either way the film would probably have benefited by trusting a little more in the audience’s intelligence and their ability to enjoy what was there, rather than shoehorning in what probably should have been left out. That sensation of what might have been, combined with a plot that seemed patchy on interconnectedness in too many places, was all too noticeable in what was otherwise an entertaining film that genuinely tried to be something fresh and not boring. It frequently succeeded too; that’s what’s so frustrating about it all.

I have one further thing I want to say about Rango; watch it. Just like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ was last summer, Rango is a film whose many good qualities only serve to highlight its errors, and make any review of it seem far more negative than the experience of watching such a fun, intelligent film actually was. Here we have a shining example of a kid’s film that genuinely tries to be something original and smart, pushing boundaries where it could have just been safe and boring, and it deserves as much attention as possible

Huh. Only 900 words. Clearly there’s a reason other reviewers needed something else to write about.

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An Opera Posessed

My last post left the story of JRR Tolkein immediately after his writing of his first bestseller; the rather charming, lighthearted, almost fairy story of a tale that was The Hobbit. This was a major success, and not just among the ‘children aged between 6 and 12’ demographic identified by young Rayner Unwin; adults lapped up Tolkein’s work too, and his publishers Allen & Unwin were positively rubbing their hands in glee. Naturally, they requested a sequel, a request to which Tolkein’s attitude appears to have been along the lines of ‘challenge accepted’.

Even holding down the rigours of another job, and even accounting for the phenomenal length of his finished product, the writing of a book is a process that takes a few months for a professional writer (Dame Barbara Cartland once released 25 books in the space of a year, but that’s another story), and perhaps a year or two for an amateur like Tolkein. He started writing the book in December 1937, and it was finally published 18 years later in 1955.

This was partly a reflection of the difficulties Tolkein had in publishing his work (more on that later), but this also reflects the measured, meticulous and very serious approach Tolkein took to his writing. He started his story from scratch, each time going in a completely different direction with an entirely different plot, at least three times. His first effort, for instance, was due to chronicle another adventure of his protagonist Bilbo from The Hobbit, making it a direct sequel in both a literal and spiritual sense. However, he then remembered about the ring Bilbo found beneath the mountains, won (or stolen, depending on your point of view) from the creature Gollum, and the strange power it held; not just invisibility, as was Bilbo’s main use for it, but the hypnotic effect it had on Gollum (he even subsequently rewrote that scene for The Hobbit‘s second edition to emphasise that effect). He decided that the strange power of the ring was a more natural direction to follow, and so he wrote about that instead.

Progress was slow. Tolkein went months at a time without working on the book, making only occasional, sporadic yet highly focused bouts of progress. Huge amounts were cross-referenced or borrowed from his earlier writings concerning the mythology, history & background of Middle Earth, Tolkein constantly trying to make his mythic world feel and, in a sense, be as real as possible, but it was mainly due to the influence of his son Christopher, who Tolkein would send chapters to whilst he was away fighting the Second World War in his father’s native South Africa, that the book ever got finished at all. When it eventually did, Tolkein had been working the story of Bilbo’s son Frodo and his adventure to destroy the Ring of Power for over 12 years. His final work was over 1000 pages long, spread across six ‘books’, as well as being laden with appendices to explain & offer background information, and he called it The Lord of The Rings (in reference to his overarching antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron).

A similar story had, incidentally, been attempted once before; Der Ring des Nibelungen is an opera (well, four operas) written by German composer Richard Wagner during the 19th century, traditionally performed over the course of four consecutive nights (yeah, you have to be pretty committed to sit through all of that) and also known as ‘The Ring Cycle’- it’s where ‘Ride of The Valkyries’ comes from. The opera follows the story of a ring, made from the traditionally evil Rhinegold (gold panned from the Rhine river), and the trail of death, chaos and destruction it leaves in its wake between its forging & destruction. Many commentators have pointed out the close similarities between the two, and as a keen follower of Germanic mythology Tolkein certainly knew the story, but Tolkein rubbished any suggestion that he had borrowed from it, saying “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases”. You can probably work out my approximate personal opinion from the title of this post, although I wouldn’t read too much into it.

Even once his epic was finished, the problems weren’t over. Once finished, he quarrelled with Allen & Unwin over his desire to release LOTR in one volume, along with his still-incomplete Silmarillion (that he wasn’t allowed to may explain all the appendices). He then turned to Collins, but they claimed his book was in urgent need of an editor and a license to cut (my words, not theirs, I should add). Many other people have voiced this complaint since, but Tolkein refused and ordered Collins to publish by 1952. This they failed to do, so Tolkein wrote back to Allen & Unwin and eventually agreed to publish his book in three parts; The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of The King (a title Tolkein, incidentally, detested because it told you how the book ended).

Still, the book was out now, and the critics… weren’t that enthusiastic. Well, some of them were, certainly, but the book has always had its detractors among the world of literature, and that was most certainly the case during its inception. The New York Times criticised Tolkein’s academic approach, saying he had “formulated a high-minded belief in the importance of his mission as a literary preservationist, which turns out to be death to literature itself”, whilst others claimed it, and its characters in particular, lacked depth. Even Hugo Dyson, one of Tolkein’s close friends and a member of his own literary group, spent public readings of the book lying on a sofa shouting complaints along the lines of “Oh God, not another elf!”. Unlike The Hobbit, which had been a light-hearted children’s story in many ways, The Lord of The Rings was darker & more grown up, dealing with themes of death, power and evil and written in a far more adult style; this could be said to have exposed it to more serious critics and a harder gaze than its predecessor, causing some to be put off by it (a problem that wasn’t helped by the sheer size of the thing).

However, I personally am part of the other crowd, those who have voiced their opinions in nearly 500 five-star reviews on Amazon (although one should never read too much into such figures) and who agree with the likes of CS  Lewis, The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times of the time that “Here is a book that will break your heart”, that it is “among the greatest works of imaginative fiction of the twentieth century” and that “the English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them”. These are the people who have shown the truth in the review of the New York Herald Tribune: that Tolkein’s masterpiece was and is “destined to outlast our time”.

But… what exactly is it that makes Tolkein’s epic so special, such a fixture; why, even years after its publication as the first genuinely great work of fantasy, it is still widely regarded as the finest work the genre has ever produced? I could probably write an entire book just to try and answer that question (and several people probably have done), but to me it was because Tolkein understood, absolutely perfectly and fundamentally, exactly what he was trying to write. Many modern fantasy novels try to be uber-fantastical, or try to base themselves around an idea or a concept, in some way trying to find their own level of reality on which their world can exist, and they often find themselves in a sort of awkward middle ground, but Tolkein never suffered that problem because he knew that, quite simply, he was writing a myth, and he knew exactly how that was done. Terry Pratchett may have mastered comedic fantasy, George RR Martin may be the king of political-style fantasy, but only JRR Tolkein has, in recent times, been able to harness the awesome power of the first source of story; the legend, told around the campfire, of the hero and the villain, of the character defined by their virtues over their flaws, of the purest, rawest adventure in the pursuit of saving what is good and true in this world. These are the stories written to outlast the generations, and Tolkein’s mastery of them is, to me, the secret to his masterpiece.