Rango (United States, 2011)

March 05, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Rango Poster

The first animated film from ILM is also the first memorable motion picture of 2011. Also, in a break from Hollywood's incessant race to surcharge parents to death by releasing anything bearing the "family film" moniker in 3-D, Rango is available in 2-D and only in 2-D. Watching this movie unfold may remind viewers why 2-D is not an inferior format. The image pops with clarity and color. It's bright and vivid. And it's a lot easier to lose oneself in the world crafted by the filmmakers without the unwelcome and unnecessary accessory of a pair of cheap plastic glasses. Rango is the poster child for those who are anti-3-D, and a great reminder that genuine creativity doesn't need a gimmicky crutch to appeal to audiences.

Rango is a celebration of the Western. It's a comedy but, like Blazing Saddles (although without the R-rated edge), it exposes a deep, abiding love for and knowledge of the genre. Working in concert, director Gore Verbinski, screenwriter John Logan, and composer Hans Zimmer have developed a tapestry that's stitched together using references to every great movie to come along during the Western's heyday. The dialogue incorporates lines (or variations thereof) from the past. Shot selection mimics classic moments. The music utilizes recognizable cues and, at times, imitates entire themes. All of the Western motifs and clich├ęs are employed, from the showdown at high noon to the lonely tumbleweed being hurried along by a dusty wind. One of the villains, the ominous Rattlesnake Jake, bears more than a passing resemblance to Western Legend Lee Van Cleef. And The Man With No Name makes a cameo (with Timothy Olyphant doing a passable Clint Eastwood imitation).

Although Rango's primary marching orders pertain to Westerns, the film occasionally branches out to reference other famous moments. One high octane scene begins with bats replacing gunships to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries" before transforming into a Western version of an ILM touchstone: the Death Star trench battle from Star Wars. For older viewers, Rango offers dozens of "spot the reference" instances to go along with a screenplay that's characterized by a depth and intelligence one rarely finds in non-Pixar animated fare. For younger viewers, there are plenty of dizzying action sequences peppering a fast-moving, energetic story.

Rango (voice of Johnny Depp) is a lizard living in a home aquarium until an accident strands beside a highway in the middle of a desert. Seeking water, he strikes out into the forbidding territory and finds Dirt - the town of Dirt, that is. It's a miniature version of an Old West frontier settlement for talking animals. Rango fits right in. There are badgers, toads, owls, and possums. The mayor (Ned Beatty) is a turtle. The most fearsome gunslinger is a snake. Rango establishes his reputation as a hero through a combination of bluster and happenstance. In a showdown with a hawk, he gets lucky. An accident brings down a disused water tower on top of the bird. However, Dirt's problems are not solved; as the new sheriff, it falls to Rango to discover what has happened to the town's water supply, which has dried up, leaving fields and mouths equally parched.

The voice acting is top-notch, with Johnny Depp taking top billing as the occasionally wisecracking Rango. Like Mike Meyers, Depp has a chameleon-like voice and is not easily recognizable without his Captain Jack accent. Support comes from an eclectic group that includes Isla Fisher (as Rango's tart-tongued love interest, Beans), Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Ray Winstone, Ned Beatty, and Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake. Rango's adventures are related by a Greek chorus of sorts. Dressed in sombreros, they play appropriate music and wonder out loud how long it will be until Rango dies.

The screenplay is pitched at a more sophisticated level than is the norm for a non-Pixar animated film. The plot is more complex, there are multiple villains, and there are existential moments (although nothing as extreme as what viewers experienced the last time Verbinski and Depp collaborated: Pirates of the Caribbean 3). While much of that will go over the head of the average child, there's plenty of whiplash-inducing action, with two standout sequences: Mr. Rango's Wild Ride and the bat attack. The only "missing" kid-friendly element is the ubiquitous animated song, and it isn't missed.

It's tempting to argue that Rango is a richer experience for adults than for children because there's so much more in the film for viewers with significant cinematic experience. Nevertheless, the movie has been assembled with a wide audience in view and at no time is it exclusionary of any demographic. In fact, the humor is so broadly accessible that five-year olds and eighty-year olds will often laugh at the same jokes. In terms of quality, Rango is the kind of movie one expects to see during the high profile summer or year-end seasons. It's to the benefit of movie-goers that it rides into multiplexes during one of the most barren stretches in recent memory. The story is about ending a drought, and that's precisely what Rango accomplishes.

Rango (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2011-03-04
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1