Depp Rustles Up Hit in 'Rango'
'Rango' has a weird appeal on many levels for anyone older than 10, especially moms and dads.
Though perhaps not as lovable or touching as the recent Pixar heavyweights, Rango is stiff competition for other animated offerings coming out this year, and definitely worth rushing out to see. Weird, wacky and intelligent, Rango may be one of the first cult classics to come out of the recent mainstream popularity of CGI animation.
With the voice of Johnny Depp anchoring the titular chameleon, Rango begins on something of a surreal note and stays that way through a series of Western-inspired action sequences and slapstick. Before he finds his destiny out West, Rango is a nameless but imaginative lizard in a Hawaiian shirt who spends his time sitting in a terrarium delivering lonely, manic monologues to his only friends: an orange toy fish and a doll torso.
Longing for adventure--or at least other animals to talk to--the pet chameleon suddenly gets an overdose of both when the terrarium falls out of his owners' car and he ends up in the Mojave Desert and then to the gun-slinging animal town of Dirt.
After meeting love-interest and fellow lizard, Beans (Isla Fischer), Rango accidentally talks his way into becoming sheriff of Dirt and begins to investigate the theft of the town’s water supply. What results is a series of adventures and misadventures that take their cues from a range of sources from Looney Tunes to Polanski’s Chinatown. While having giddy fun with the legacy of Sergio Leone, Rango throws its references every which way but is still able to feel something like a CGI Blazing Saddles with lizards.
As you may have guessed, not a lot of 10-year-olds will get the embedded references, but do kids really need to “get” everything as long as the action-comedy elements maintain interest, or as long as the story is sufficiently touching? The script (by Chicagoan John Logan) is a bit scatterbrained, but that’s part of the joy of it: Dirt is not just a dusty backdrop, it's also a stage for a vast array of tough and zany characters. Depp’s voice spars with the likes of Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Harry Dean Stanton, Bill Nighy, Abigail Breslin and Stephen Root.
Director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean), and Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (who served on Rango as a “visual consultant” as he did on WALL-E) strike something very close to animation perfection: photo-realistic when it needs to be and cartoonish when it calls for it.
Rango is so rich with visual details that moviegoers could almost watch Rango with the sound off if Depp weren’t such a joy to listen to as the unlucky and oblivious chameleon doing his worst to blend in to his new Wild West surroundings.
If Rango feels a bit off it's probably because it’s a bit too mature and self-aware for its own good. I’d hesitate to take a child age 10 or younger to see this movie. As for kids between 10 and 15, Rango is probably perfect, especially if they have a weird sense of humor. Yet even some of these kids might get a little bored with the cowboy conventions, and start wondering why mostly older folks are laughing at all of the jokes.
So who, then was Rango actually made for? Well, for people like myself, 20-something film nerds, people who get Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas references but no longer have to hide our admiration for cartoons thanks to Pixar. Like an inept gunfighter, Rango shoots over the heads of younger kids, but hey, that’s why it’s PG and not G. If you have very young kids, you're better off waiting for Tangled to come out on DVD.
It may seem contradictory to say a kids’ movie isn’t for kids. Rango, despite the layers of Spaghetti Western homage and some pseudo-disturbing images, is still a kids’ movie. In fact it’s not all that different in tone from Verbinski and Depp’s collaboration in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, though Rango is a touch more cerebrally rewarding.
Verbinski characteristically keeps things moving by taping into both Depp’s comedic timing and the full action-sequence potentials of his CGI palate. With Deakins at his side, the Mojave Desert in all its terrible and trippy beauty comes to life. Add to this a catchy mariachi-themed score by Hans Zimmer (with help from the band Los Lobos) and a few timely environmental undertones and Rango may be Pixar's first worthwhile dueling-partner of 2011.
Yet, no mater what Pixar has up its sleeve for this year, Rango is going down as a Western legend, if only by virtue of being so enjoyably weird.