For the most part, animation is controlled by a few very loud voices in the industry, and there is little room for people to experiment with it, particularly at the studio level.

That's a shame.  Because animation is a medium with near-limitless storytelling potential, and year after year, film after film, we essentially see the same types of stories with the same types of characters and the same sort of authorial voice, an echo chamber in which you either tell stories for children, or you don't tell stories.  And you tell them in a very familiar way, so as not to freak anybody out.

Sure, we've got Pixar, and I have been vocal about how much I admire their work, but I don't think that should be the only strong voice out there in animation.  Disney, Dreamworks, Aardman... they've all contributed strong films to the mix, but that's still just a very narrow range of stories being told.

What we don't see much of are filmmakers who have strong voices who decide to just make an animated film. Robert Zemeckis is a rare example, and he sort of took the all-or-nothing route, building an infrastructure and working with the same technology from film to film, polishing his technique, experimenting.  Seeing Spielberg and Jackson jump into "Tintin" together is a thrill, and I hope they crush it.  I hope they make these movies that are basically like jumping into the world that Herge created.

The last time I saw Gore Verbinski, he looked sorely in need of a vacation.  He looked deep-fried.  He was in post-production on "Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End," and he was evidently working 30 hour days to finish the film.  He looked that way at the end of "Dead Man's Chest," too, but by the end of that third film, he really was just flattened.  I still am in awe of him actually pulling it off on the schedule that they had him on.  I figured he'd probably vanish for a good decade or so to recharge those batteries, but instead, it looks like he decided to have some fun and do something new.

And whatever else it is, "Rango" certainly looks new.

The combination of extreme stylization and the performance capture work here is fascinating, and it makes this a real collaboration between Verbinski and Johnny Depp, playing the lead character, a chameleon trying to survive the harsh Mojave desert.  If you like Depp's "spacey weirdo" act that he's perfected in the last twelve years or so since "Fear and Loathing," then it looks like "Rango" is the animated film for you.  Depp plays a housepet who goes on a journey of self-discovery, and based on the trailer, I guess it's not the easiest of journeys.  There's an eclectic cast in the film, including Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, and Timothy Olyphant playing "The Spirit of the West."  And this isn't just a voice cast... this entire thing was done with performance capture, so the cast was playing these animals in real-time, playing off of each other, which is very different than how animation typically works.  That alone makes me interested to see the way it all comes together.

And don't worry... this is a real trailer.  It's not another abstract little doodle like the first thing that came out recently.  This introduces you to the character and the style and the setting.  Check it out:

 

 

I'm dying to know more about this one, and I look forward to the glimpses we'll be getting of the film in the months between now and March.  Hopefully, we'll have a lot more about "Rango" and Verbinski between now and then.

In the meantime, it looks like Verbinski is possibly getting ready to make his first live-action film since he finished with the "Pirates" trilogy, and it's... a remake?  Crap.  Admittedly, "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" is source material that could provide a strong visual playground, depending on what take Steve Conrad (who wrote "The Pursuit Of Happyness") decided to use in approaching the film's mix of fantasy and reality.  The James Thurber short story that inspired the Danny Kaye film in the '40s (both of them are named as source material for Conrad's take) is a simple thing, basically about the way men daydream themselves as heroes while settling for something less.  Like most of Thurber's work, it is evocative precisely because it is so direct.  He had a lovely wit.

I worry that "Mitty" could easily be a big loud noisy "comedy," and that the first trailer will look a lot like those trailers for "The Smurfs" or "Gulliver's Travels," and that it'll turn out that the decades it's spent in development (it seems like they've been talking about a new "Walter Mitty" for as long as they were talking about "Benjamin Button") will be for nothing in the end.  But then again... I like Verbinski.  I think he's got a really wry sense of humor, and I think we've only barely seen what he is capable of so far.  He got detoured into being a giant franchise filmmaker by accident, and I sincerely hope that "Rango" and "Walter Mitty" represent him using the clout those blockbusters bought him to do something that speaks to him on a personal level.

"Rango" is in theaters March 2011.

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