Directed by Gore Verbinski
Screenplay by John Logan
Johnny Depp as Rango / Lars
Isla Fisher as Beans
Ned Beatty as Mayor
Timothy Olyphant as Spirit of the West
Running time: 107 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking.
New animated picture gives Pixar a run for its money, offers wit and smarts amid loving satire of Spaghetti Westerns.
Gore Verbinski is a rare director whose films span all genres, one who remains in the shadows even though his movies kill at the box office (Verbinski is responsible for The Ring and the massively popular Pirates of the Caribbean films). In conjunction with Nickelodeon, Verbinski’s latest offering is this weekend’s animated Spaghetti Western Rango. It’s a playful love note to John Ford, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood. It’s beautifully rendered, stylishly written, and a lot darker in tone than you’d think.
Long gone are the days in which animation was kid stuff. Thanks in part to Pixar and Adult Swim, adults nowadays adore American cartoons just as much as (and sometimes more than) their wee offspring. Before the lights go down on Friday’s matinee, toddlers coo and squeal while their parents tiredly munch popcorn. As the film opens, introducing our reptilian protagonist, children’s giggling punctuates every movement of the lopsided lizard. Shortly, though, the kiddies grow weary and adult chuckles and guffaws soar over the kids’ heads. Rango may be a Nickelodeon movie, but it’s bleaker and sharper than your average kid fare. It’s rated PG, so no worries as to whether or not it’s appropriate for your little one’s delicate sensibilities—but it may not suit her tastes. Adults, though, will find themselves chuckling at film-school plot machinations and playful jabs at Western tropes.
The film opens on a Mariachi band of burrowing owls in sombreros serenading the audience, inviting us to “enjoy our confections” as they sing us the tale of our doomed hero. Forthwith we meet a crooked chameleon with a lopsided head (voiced by Johnny Depp, who can apparently do anything) acting out a lonely fantasy with a broken Barbie doll and a wind-up fish. “That’s it!” he proclaims, unsatisfied with his own performance. “Our hero can’t exist in a vacuum!” Obviously, he needs some outside force to propel him into action! (This kind of patently plain foreshadowing punctuates the film.) Shortly, our chameleon and his aquarium are thrown out the car’s back windshield, where he finds himself in the southwestern desert, frying in the heat and shedding his skin. He meets a cryptic, wise armadillo who directs him toward Dirt, a little town a day away. In Dirt, the chameleon christens himself Rango and impresses the townsfolk (owls, moles, lizards, and other desert creatures) with his flair for dramatics. It’s not too long before they make him Sherriff—and task him with finding precious agua to keep the town alive.
Every hero needs a leading lady, and in Rango’s case it’s Beans (Isla Fisher), a sassy frontierswoman (lizard) whose only flaw is her natural defense mechanism—to go completely stock-still at random moments. He meets the smarmy, power-hungry Mayor (Ned Beatty), an aged turtle in a wheelchair who promises his people water and offers them spooky religious imagery. In any self-respecting flick a true hero has to suffer through a spell of self-doubt, and Rango gets his. But before long…well, of course our bumbling, hapless hero saves the day. Don’t they always?
Like last year’s Best Picture nominee Toy Story 3, Rango is thoroughly charming because it deliberately strums those self-referential, witty chords that delight us so. It pokes at overplayed, legendary Western thematic material while remaining droll and almost—but not quite—too smart for its own good. John Logan’s (Gladiator, The Aviator) elegantly written screenplay uses language that will soar high above kids’ heads—you’ll hear the words “annuity,” “malfeasance,” and “conundrum,” among others. It follows a surreal, ludicrously self-aware path, and the writing has a very “Coen brothers” feel. In the lively, southwestern-influenced soundtrack you might recognize a similar yodel to the famed music from Raising Arizona, and inept but lucky Rango bears a tonal resemblance to H.I. McDonough. Westerns seem to be experiencing a resurgence (mostly at the hands of the Coens, in fact), and Rango will certainly bask in their newly restored success.
What truly makes Rango exceptional, though, is that Industrial Light and Magic’s animation may have Pixar’s artists shivering in their cowboy boots. Every scale on Rango’s chartreuse face, every strand of fur on the tiny desert pigs, each downy feather on a turkey’s visage, is lovingly rendered. Perhaps most remarkable is the detail in the creatures’ eyes. Verbinski consulted with Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, and as a result the animation is brilliant—were it not for the, you know, talking animals, you’d think the desert landscapes were real. And thank the Hollywood heavens Verbinski didn’t see the need to make Rango in 3D—it’s pretty perfect as is.
Rango may not see quite the level of success last year’s major animated pictures did, but it is sure to delight adults with its intelligence and children with its impeccably executed animation. Its characters won’t burrow into your heart like the beloved robots of WALL-E or the dejected toys of the Toy Story movies, but for a springtime evening in the theater, they’ll certainly do. Fair warning, though: these critters are more frightening than cute—particularly Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy). If you long for the days of John Wayne, wish for the smarts that were lacking in the acceptably adorable Gnomeo and Juliet, or just have a love for Johnny Depp, you’ll appreciate Rango.