Film Review: Rango

by chubbywerewolf on 5 March 2011

Spoons (left), voiced by Alex Manugian, and Rango, voiced by Johnny Depp are shown in a scene from "Rango." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Industrial Light & Magic)

When it comes to animated feature films, I did not originally have high hopes for 2011. In addition to Cars 2, (a sequel to the only sub-par Pixar film produced to date), we have a handful of so-so looking animated movies with names like “Gnomeo & Juliet” and “Hoodwinked Too” (apparently a sequel as well). Other films include “Rio” (previews look rather “meh”), “Kung Fu Panda 2” (could have potential) and “Puss in Boots” (a “Shrek” spin-off that comes to us about five years too late).

But then there’s “Rango,” Gore Verbinski’s animated feature that is marketed as being about “an ordinary chameleon who accidentally winds up in the town of Dirt, a lawless outpost in the Wild West in desperate need of a new sheriff.” The premise elicited a yawn from me, but no real interest.

A few days later, I learned that Johnny Depp (who worked with Verbinski on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies) would be playing the Rango character. And not only would Depp be voicing Rango, he’d be performing the role as well, with the aid of motion capture technology. (Depp prefers the term “emotion capture”; check out some of the raw video footage here.

In any case, Depp’s participation was all “Rango” needed to become a “must-see” for me. My interest increased even more when I learned that “Rango” would, thankfully, be bucking the current 3-D trend. And when I stumbled upon the “Rango Characters” gallery (featuring storyboards and early designs) at NYTimes.com, I decided that this was one of those movies I wanted needed to see right away.

I’m so glad that I did. To put it simply and succinctly, “Rango” is thus far the best film of a still young 2011. Regardless of what animated features open in the next ten months, it ought to be a shoo-in for the Best Animated Feature category at the 2012 Academy Awards. It may even have an outside shot at a Best Picture nomination, if ten films are nominated again next year.

So what makes “Rango” such a fun movie? First and foremost (and in spite of the marketing), it should be noted that it is not a traditional kid flick. Rather, “Rango” is a trippy, metatextual love letter to the Western genre, cleverly disguised as a childrens movie. I spotted no fewer than a dozen film references, everything from The Magnificent Seven to Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy. It is also worth noting that “Rango” owes much in the way of story and characters to 1974’s “Chinatown.” Fans of the departed Hunter S. Thopmson will also be well rewarded if they keep their eyes open during an early sequence taking place on the desert highway.

“Rango’s” quirkiness goes beyond film references and homages. A handful of hallucinations and dream sequences feature imagery and landscapes that would be at home in any Dali painting. And when Rango is occasionally overcome by bleakness and doubt, we feel as though we are watching a film scripted by Shakespeare and directed by Bergman.

So will kids enjoy it? I think they will. There was just one child at my screening, but I heard him laugh often, especially in the first half of the film. (More on that in a moment.) No more than a few minutes pass between action sequences, so this probably bodes well for parents of young children. I will mention that the movie features drinking, smoking and gunplay. So, if the notion of a cigar-smoking lizard or a cat that drinks “cactus juice” out of a whisky glass is going to bother you or your child, its best to skip this one. A few characters do die, and there are some scary moments.

The characters are fun and imaginative, and the voice-work is top-notch. My favorites were Ned Beatty’s tortoise mayor, Harry Dean Stanton’s Balthazar, Ray Winstone’s Bad Bill, Alex Manugian’s Spoons and, of course, the quartet of Mariachi Owls, who appear in interludes at the end of each scene to eagerly remind us that our hero is, without question, doomed… and to remind us to enjoy our healthy, low-sodium popcorn.

In addition to the homages mentioned above, grown-ups are likely to appreciate an air battle sequence featuring a banjo version of “Ride of the Valkries.” There’s also a sequence involving a character called the “Spirit of the West” which drew gasps from my audience due to the Spirit’s physical likeness to a Hollywood Western legend, and a terrific voice cameo from one of today’s best actors (don’t IMDB it… you’ll spoil the surprise).

From a technical standpoint, the film is a near-masterpiece. The animation is beautifully and competently produced, and the rendering of glass, dirt, fur and textures are as good as anything I’ve seen in Pixar’s best-looking films (“Ratatouille” and “Up”). If the Rango character is the heart of the film, Hans Zimmer’s score—steeped with nods to the great Ennio Morricone (who scored Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns)—is its soul.

All of that said, “Rango” isn’t perfect. Much of the film is spent trying to decide what type of a movie it should be. Is it a fish out of water story? A conspiracy thriller? A “High Noon” style one-man-against-many type of story? A “Magnificent Seven” style shoot ’em up? Or is it veiled condemnation of our habits as consumers of natural resources? In aspiring to be all of these things, “Rango” ultimately doesn’t really excel at any one of them.

The same identity crisis plagues the tone of the film. The first act is overflowing with slapstick lunacy. The second act (where much of the action/adventure occurs) has its funny moments, but they are not on par with those of the first. As the movie marches towards its conclusion, it ventures into darker territory once or twice before finally reclaiming a more light-hearted tone.

Still, “Rango” is a film that seems intent on defying conventional, linear storytelling techniques. And to some extent, the inconsistencies mentioned above might play into that objective. But even if that were not the case, these perceived problems are not enough to dissuade me from giving “Rango” my enthusiastic recommendation for adults and children alike.

MY REVIEW: 4 out of 5 MOONS

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa March 12, 2011 at 1:16 am

I haven’t seen Rango yet (actually, Battle: LA was on my priority, which I saw today), but did you see this? It was a behind the scenese feature that Verbinski released, showing how they did the production. It’s kinda neat!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2w6IjsRE-g

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CMrok93 April 12, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Inventive visuals and lively voice cast lift this finely animated film above the fray. So it’s a shame that the story feels both random and predictable. Good review, check out mine when you can please!

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