March 04, 2011


Grade: B

Director: Gore Verbinski

Starring the voices of: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, and Bill Nighy

MPAA Rating: PG

Running Time: 1 hr. 48 min.

Seeing Rango should count as two hours of film school credit. Under the guise of an animated kids flick starring talking animals, director Gore Verbinski cuts whole cloth from western iconography, particularly the assembled works of Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood and – most of all – Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. The water motif from Chinatown figures prominently. There are clever references to the aerial assault in Apocalypse Now and Hunter S. Thompson’s hallucinogenic desert trip in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Verbinski even revisits his own white-scaped, netherworldy conception of Davy Jones’ Locker from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for an encounter with an Eastwood doppelganger called “Spirit of the West” (voiced by Timothy Olyphant).

Yet, it is both a compliment and critique to say that Rango leaves you yearning to see a bunch of other, better films. The star of this decidedly existential show is the titular chameleon Rango (Johnny Depp), a lizard whose terrarium falls out the back of his owner’s hatchback and crashes smack dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Steered by predators and spiritual guides – including an armadillo named Roadkill (Alfred Molina) – Rango wanders into the appropriately named town of Dirt, a 19th century Old West dustbowl nearly crippled by drought and populated by animals filling the roles of western archetypes.

Circumstances soon find Rango installed as Dirt’s newest sheriff by its mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty), who combines Gabriele Ferzetti’s wheelchair-bound railroad baron in Once Upon a Time in the West with John Huston’s Chinatown drawl. What follows is a rather convoluted storyline centered around the area’s dwindling water supply, which ultimately settles around Rango’s search for self-discovery.

The film’s eye-popping animation and voice actors – who also include Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, and Isla Fisher as Rango’s quasi-love interest – are tremendous. Depp plays the lead role with gonzo aplomb, although Verbinski fails – as in the Pirates trilogy – to reign in the actor’s wackier shtick and idiosyncratic, ad libbed mutterings.

Rango’s unsightly countenance proves distracting, as does raw dialogue and frightening imagery too mature for very young viewers (the film’s PG rating is earned). Moreover, the chuckles are more of the knowing, appreciative variety, not the sort of belly laughs you’d expect from an animated comedy – the recurring mariachi chorus of owls quickly grows tiresome. Many scenes linger past the point of relevance, and the mélange of genres and plot tangents always seem on the verge of implosion.

That tension partly could be Verbinski’s intent, as Rango strives to duplicate the sardonic, improvised vibe of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. It succeeds only in part, erecting a wit-filled milieu but neglecting – until the very end – to fill it with enough genuine emotion to make us care who’s really in charge or where all the water’s being pumped.

Audiences will come for the critters, but they’ll stay for the satire. Capped by a finale that actually coalesces into a robust neo-Western, Rango – like the films it emulates – is best absorbed rather than understood.

Neil Morris

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