Rango is not like the typical celebrity-voiced, lowest common denominator animated films coming out of Dreamworks, Sony and wherever else that isn't Pixar these days. It's also not that preternatural combination of adult storytelling and kid friendly characters and comedy that the creative minds at Pixar most likely had to sell their souls to the Devil to discover, either. Scripted by Gladiator and The Aviator writer John Logan, Rango is quite possibly the most adult-oriented piece of animation not made by French people to hit theaters in a good long while. It is a film made for people who love movies--especially westerns. Rango digs deep into great films, celebrating them in a way that's equally reverential and hilarious. The nature of that humor, not to mention the film's aggressively grotesque visual style, might prove alienating to some younger viewers, but the film's backbone is a quality fish out of water comedic adventure that offers few barriers to entry.
That fish out of water actually happens to be a chameleon. Voiced by Johnny Depp, the film's titular lizard is introduced to us as a solitary creature driven to perform. He sits in his terrarium, acting out elaborate plays with his cast of actors--which include a plastic palm tree, a nude Barbie torso, and a wind-up fish toy--while frequently diverging into tangents about the nature of acting and conflict in storytelling. Don't worry if your six-year-old starts shifting in their seats impatiently at this point, because it is only a few minutes in before adventure happens. Trouble on a remote desert roadway sends Rango's habitat flying out of his owners' car and into the scorched wasteland, leaving him without a home and a purpose. So he travels into the desert and discovers a small town called Dirt.
Three Amigos-esque accidental heroism leads him to the role of town sheriff, where he finds himself tasked with investigating a suddenly lacking water supply, not to mention sorting out bandit moles, gunslinging snakes, and a would-be love interest in a comely, curled young lizard played by Isla Fisher.
The way this adventure plays out is, at once, predictable and bizarre. You know exactly what's going to happen to a nervous lizard who takes on a role seemingly too big for his britches, and how his redemption will eventually come about. At the same time, the path Rango takes to get there is fraught with peculiar and delightful detours, many of which echo the style and cinematography of great westerns from High Noon to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Apocalypse Now, a plain as day callback to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and an antagonistic mayoral turtle based heavily on John Huston's role in Chinatown? It's great, amusing stuff that, undoubtedly, much of will fly over the heads of younger viewers. In fact, some stuff in here is likely to fly over the heads of many people my own age-- Kim Novak jokes, anyone? Anyone? Hello?
It's in that realm that Rango occasionally struggles. As feverishly clever as it can be, Verbinski and Logan can't quite figure out when to rein it in. It's a conflict of tone that never quite resolves itself as the movie chugs along. The kids movie and the cinephilic tribute film are in a perpetual wrestling match for the audience's attention, and more often, the film nerds claim victory. While that certainly bodes well for a giant geek like myself, I can see some people balking at the film's tone across the board, especially when it starts veering into more morbid and threatening plot points, and talking animals actually die.
Still, even the most film ignorant preteen is bound to get some enjoyment out of the film's adventure. It's too much fun not to. The set pieces are so gorgeously constructed, the action scenes so exciting and cinematically shot, and the characters so unbelievably, erm, believable, that it's easy to get lost in the visual spectacle on display.
Bill Nighy, Alfred Molina, Ray Winstone, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Gil Birmingham and Stephen Root.
I have to say that my opinion of Rango feels slightly skewed. I say this because Rango feels like a movie made for film critics. It's a movie very heavily aimed at the Criterion-owning, Sergio Leone-loving, symbolism-deconstructing aficionados of all things film, that has somehow disguised itself as a movie for people who watch Nickelodeon because it's still age appropriate for them to do so. Some will react poorly to this, especially if they don't read movie reviews--yes, those people do exist. Still, a review is ultimately based around a single person's experience with something, and my personal experience with Rango was a great deal of fun. My hope is that if you're reading this, you'll experience that same enjoyment.