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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 10, 2011

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Rango, Pippin

If you love a movie that consists of a string of empty Western cliches, surrounded by pointless references to other movies and all kinds of contradictions that suggest that nobody brought their brains to the script meeting, then Rango is the movie for you.

Since Rango was written by the screenwriter who brought us such famous films as Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Time Machine, Star Trek: Nemesis, The Last Samurai, The Aviator, and Sweeney Todd, and directed by the guy who did the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you'd think there'd be at least a funny joke now and then, or a character that wasn't paper thin, but you'd be wrong.

It's fine to use the tropes of a genre: Silverado, Unforgiven, and Open Range all used every cliche in the Western film genre, but they made the stories fresh and new with intriguing characters and genuinely funny dialogue or deep motivations. It can be done.

Furthermore, it can be done in animated films. Gone are the days when "it's just a cartoon." Between the work of Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle) and last year's brilliant Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon, and Tangled, we have reason to expect animated films to be every bit as deep, rich, inventive, and entertaining as feature films.

If Rango had been funny or even slightly interesting, I would have forgiven the obvious idiocies. For instance, when the film opens, Rango, a pet chameleon, lives an elaborate fantasy life, full of dreams of heroism, until he is bounced out of a moving vehicle in the middle of the Mohave Desert. At first, he lives in our world -- he is hunted by a hawk; he crawls inside a discarded glass bottle; everything is to scale.

But then he gets to the cliche Western town of Dirt. The old human-sized scale is still there -- the town seems to have been constructed of human litter. But somehow, all the cats and other creatures living there have bottles and jars and buckets and guns and wagons and playing cards sized for them. Were these all made as doll accessories and then abandoned in the desert?

Now think of how rigorously the Toy Story movies were absolutely true to scale -- they never tried to have it both ways, bringing in miniature items so that the toys could be exactly like us, only smaller. They only used items from the real world. Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons went the other way -- the animals lived like full-sized humans and everything was scaled to them. But ... both at once? Did Bugs Bunny ever run into a full-sized carrot?

Rango bears all the earmarks of utter carelessness. Not in the animation -- that's excellent. It's the writing that is contemptible. Why did anyone read this script and imagine for a moment that they had a movie? The little children in the theater around me were sleeping, talking, running around -- but not watching. They knew there was nothing remotely interesting on the screen.

Then I looked back through the writer's filmography and realized: He has never written anything with a scrap of humor in it. He truly had no clue of the rule that all good comedy writers know: Comedy only works when we empathize with characters who are suffering.

Characters -- that's the problem. Because not only were his previous films never funny for an instant, they never had a character I actually cared about. People just did stuff on a grandiose scale. And yes, I'm including Gladiator in that. Hollow. It's as if someone told the writer what human beings were like, and, like a sketch artist, he was working from the description.

Do I want to spend any more empty hours like the ones I spent in The Last Samurai, The Aviator, and Rango? No. So I will watch for the name of writer John Logan in the credits of much-touted movies in the future, and stay home.


When the musical Pippin debuted in 1973, it didn't sound very interesting to me. The early 70s were full of anti-war hippie drug stupidity and all the descriptions I heard of Pippin sounded like it was just another rock musical, trying to make Broadway "relevant."

Now, of course, Broadway is so filled with smug political correctness pretending to be courageous that it's hard to find new musicals that aren't either adaptations of hit movies or old operas, empty extravaganzas, or elitist self-flattery-fests.

The shining exception was Wicked, and guess what? Wicked's brilliant composer-lyricist, Stephen Schwartz, was also the composer and lyricist of ... Pippin.

On Tuesday night I saw a dress rehearsal of Weaver Center's production of Pippin. Director Keith Taylor is kind enough to let me attend rehearsals so I can review his shows before they close. He allows this because I'm experienced enough in theatre to be able to see past rehearsal problems and envision the show that will be performed.

(Though in this case, the show actually runs two weeks -- Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, March 10, 11, 12 and 17, 18, 19, at 7:00 p.m. at Weaver Academy for the Performing and Visual Arts, on Spring Street at the end of Washington. Ticket price is $12.)

The show had barely started when I remembered one other reason I ignored Pippin back in the 1970s. I'm a history buff (perhaps you've noticed) and Pippin while pretending to be about Charlemagne's son and heir, makes a complete hash of history.

But I'm older now, and I was able to set aside the irritant of historical error in order to see what Pippin actually is: An allegory about (of all things) the meaning of life.

The musical certainly touches all the bases from the early 70s -- Pippin is a college student, alienated from but seeking the approval of his powerful father. And of course it starts with a war against the Visigoths (who were actually every bit as civilized as Charlemagne's Frankish kingdom, and a great deal more Romanized -- but I digress), so we can have our faux-naive anti-war message from the era.

But I was happily surprised. Pippin is a great deal smarter than most earnest efforts from the era. In fact, when Pippin eventually becomes king and, true to his ideals, abolishes the army -- and taxes -- he quickly discovers that invaders (Huns? Really?) must be resisted. He ends up restoring his father's evil old system.

In fact, he ends up restoring his father -- because in this whimsical allegory, anything is possible.

By the end, despite the obligatory free-love stuff, Pippin ends up finding that nothing brings him the extreme joy he was searching for, and the only thing that comes close is ... family. Yep. The primary message of Pippin is that when you finally get over your adolescence, the boredom of supporting and raising a family within the structure of marriage is actually, in its modest way, as close to the meaning of life as you're going to get.

As a show, it's also quite entertaining. No, Schwartz was not yet capable of the soaring brilliance of Wicked, but he had a sense of melody and the lyrics are often quite clever. There are moments of genuine delight.

The Weaver production is a worthy one. The design concept is built around Lady Gaga -- a contemporary performer whom I find nauseatingly fake and exhibitionist, like Madonna on steroids. Naturally, the fact that a nearly-sixty-year-old coot like me detests Lady Gaga practically guarantees that teenagers are delighted to dress in her style.

In fact, I've heard that most of the costumes came out of the kids' own closets, or they bought the costume elements because they actually think they'll have a use for them. (Future scene: "Mom, you mean you actually wore this on stage?" "Close that trunk and don't imagine for a second that I'm letting you out of the house dressed like that!")

But the costumes actually work for this allegorical play, once you get past the fact that dressing like Lady Gaga means putting teenage girls in get-ups that would embarrass many a self-respecting streetwalker.

Instead of having the combo for this jazz (not rock) musical in the pit at the front of the stage, they're behind a thin curtain at the back. This puts the actors closer to the audience and makes the band part of the background. Cool decision.

I've been watching the kids in the Weaver drama program for many years now, and this is, in my opinion, the best musical they've done. The root of this is in Isaac Powell, who plays the title role. I thought of him, before this, as a skinny kid with some talent; but in this performance he proves himself to be an excellent singer, a fine actor, and a good dancer. And he's strong, which is proven several times in the show. Most of all, though, he commands the stage and leads the show in a way few high school actors can manage.

He's got a good supporting cast, too, though I'm only going to mention two -- Hayden Moses (Charlemagne), who sings well and has authority beyond his years, and Elissa Bober (Pippin's stepmother, Fastrada), who owns the stage whenever she wants to, and plays the part with racy gusto.

It's a show to be enjoyed, the best musical I've seen at Weaver -- both in performance and in the underlying material.

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