My initial reaction to early trailers on Gore Verbinski’s animated film Rango was one of incredulity. I was fully convinced that the film would be excessively bizarre to the point of messiness; an expectation attributed in part to the direction of the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films. As more media appeared, I grew slightly more interested in spite of myself. Just a couple of days ago, I finally made the decision to go see the movie. I’d like to take this moment to apologize to Gore Verbinski for doubting him. Rango is a beautiful, bizarre, hilarious, thrilling delight.
The film begins with a terrarium-dwelling gecko named Lars (Johnny Depp), aspiring thespian and creative mind, who is separated suddenly from his owners during a highway accident and stumbles into a town called Dirt. Seeing his opportunity to really flex his acting muscles, Lars emerges as Rango, a badass bandit killer and lawman. Rango learns that Dirt is in the middle of a severe drought–the town’s water supply no longer flows, and the citizens are starting to become suspicious of the Mayor (Ned Beatty), a wheelchair-bound turtle so obviously reminiscent of John Huston’s character from Chinatown that there is little doubt that he is up to no good. Rango is promoted to sheriff of the town and takes the townspeople out into the desert to try to find a source of water. At the same time, Rango attempts to win the affections of another lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher) and keep up his facade. Late in the game, the formidable Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), a massive snake with mechanical segments and a gatling gun for a rattle, shows up for the requisite “final showdown”. Other standouts in the fantastic voice cast are Abigail Breslin as a little mouse and Alfred Molina as a philosophical armadillo. Interestingly, the actors physically acted together in the studio (as opposed to the direction most animated films take where the actors record separately and have everything edited together). It makes for a considerably more snappy and dynamic flow of dialogue, which is already crammed with some truly hilarious moments.
Rango is completely unique for an animated film. It’s not the winning Pixar formula of lovable characters and sophisticated storytelling, nor is it the messy, immature and underdeveloped material that comes out of most of the other studios. It functions partially as a love letter to classic films–and in the hands of a director that has had three movies worth of practice handling ambitious films on a massive scale, Rango works in that it feels like a live action film in the skin of an animated film.
What sets Rango apart from your average children’s film, and from films in general, is its unmatched reverence for cinema and the performing arts. When we first meet Rango, he lives in a terrarium where his only friends are a headless Barbie doll and a wind-up goldfish. He performs dramatic pieces for an invisible audience in an attempt to sort through a rather severe existential crisis. Once circumstances bring him out of his artificial home, the references to classic cinematic works start pouring in and include callbacks to Apocalypse Now, Chinatown, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and countless more. The films itself is something of a spaghetti western, and an obvious (and utterly brilliant) extended reference to Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” character later on cements Rango as a film for movie lovers. It’s this classification that makes the movie so completely enjoyable.
Another massive departure from traditional animation is the style of the characters. Most animated films make their characters attractive and colorful. Rango‘s animals are ugly and grotesque, yet rendered in absolute loving detail. These are some seriously detailed characters, and some of the best and most realistic looking I’ve seen this side of The Owls of Ga’Hoole. It’s a pretty stunning achievement for it being the first all-animated feature to come out of special effects studio Industrial Light and Magic.
While marketed as a children’s film, Rango is quite clearly not a piece that was completely intended for youngsters. While there isn’t really anything here that makes it completely unsuitable for them, the film operates with a level of maturity and advanced dialogue and humor that most children won’t catch onto. Most of the humor involves elaborate setups, rapid-fire dialogue, inside jokes, and completely bizarre lines that will go right over the heads of most people under the age of 17. In the theater I attended, the adults were the main ones laughing. It’s an animated film for adults, without the messy darkness that permeates some other adult animated films. Instead, it derives its laughs from its purely bizarre feel. The weirdness of Rango is impossible to describe and has to be seen to be believed. Occasionally, it feels like it is trying to appeal to the younger crowd with a little bit of the bathroom humor that is apparently requisite to Nickelodeon films. This occasional tonal meandering detracts slightly from the film as a whole, but it’s never severe enough to make it less than enjoyable. That said, there is still fun to be had for the children. While they may miss some of the more sophisticated humor, the attractive animation and some very exciting action sequences will entertain them.
Rango is a movie that will capture the hearts of seasoned lovers of cinema. The aggressively weird overall tone and style, the sincere love for classic cinema, the brilliant dialogue from writer John Logan (Gladiator and Aviator), the exciting action and the genuinely beautiful and cinematic aesthetic are all immensely satisfying. The countless references to other films make for a feast of movie trivia lovers, and having missed most of them on my first viewing, I feel compelled to revisit the delightful insanity one more time.
Score: ****1/2 (Out of 5)
Rated: PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking
Released: March 4, 2011