Generally speaking, when directors find themselves deciding what to do with their careers after finding massive financial success--as well as the studio clout that comes with it--they tend to tread down one of two paths. One fork in the road leads to non-stop big budget movies aimed at mass audiences, and the other to passion projects, movies a director couldn't get made when they were up and comers, but thanks to money and notoriety, now can. For his first project following the humongous success of the simultaneously amusing and elephantine Pirates of the Caribbean
trilogy (he's only producing the upcoming fourth film), director Gore Verbinski
essentially split the difference. He went to Paramount and Nickelodeon films to make a slapsticky CG-animated film starring anthropomorphic animals that would obviously appeal to filmgoing families, and then he went and made it weird
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
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.
Dirt is every sun-beaten frontier town from every western ever, minus some of the more illicit sinnin', and populated exclusively by animals of varying levels of moral flexibility. Ever the actor, and literally a chameleon, Rango
blends in by busting out blustery stories of tough guy antics and outlaw killin' to impress the locals. A bit of 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
That love of film even goes well beyond the western genre. In what other animated film could you find both lovingly crafted tributes to the "Ride of the Valkyries" helicopter attack in 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.
It's perhaps a strange choice to create an animated film where the characters are, by modern standards, ugly, but credit to Verbinski and the animators at Industrial Lights and Magic, because they clearly had a vision. These animals are bizarrely shaped, frequently scarred and deformed, and yet, completely watchable. They're expressive, exquisitely detailed, and voiced with wonderful energy. Depp is especially goofy and fun as Rango, but equally excellent performances come from the likes of Fisher, 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.