Director: Gore Verbinski

Notable Cast (Voice): Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Timothy Olyphant

Rating: PG

Review:  Early previews for Rango did nothing but invoke confusion and curiosity about what crazy vision Gore Verbinski was bringing to life.  A talking lizard voiced by Johnny Depp?  Giant floating plastic wind up fish? Nickelodeon?  Who would have known a film so cloaked in oddities would turn out to be a taught western thriller the whole family could enjoy.  But the beauty in Rango, unlike any other children’s film I’ve ever seen, is that the lines between who the film’s target audience are blurred into one murky mist.  Rango doles out entertainment evenly amongst demographics, referencing a classic R-rated Depp role in the opening minutes of the film for example.    Rango takes inspiration from some of the all-time best westerns to create an epic adventure with a wonderful message, all starting with a little doe eyed lizard embarking on the enchanting journey of a lifetime.  Rango will win the hearts of children and parents alike, tapping creative talent that makes an early push for Animated Film of the Year.

Rango (Depp) is a common house lizard, who dreams of one day ruling the stage.   Trapped inside his glass cage, Rango is forced work with such actors as a fake palm tree, a dead bug, the torso of a Barbie doll, and an orange plastic toy fish.  But when his tank falls off his owner’s truck and leaves him dazed in the middle of the road, Rango is forced into an ecosystem his pampered lifestyle couldn’t possibly prepare him for.  He meets the almost roadkill armadillo (Molina) that caused the fateful speed bump, who tells of the mythical quest Rango is about to take to find his true self.  Rango sets out into the desert, all alone, and quickly discovers the treachery of the food chain.  After narrowly avoiding a hungry hawk, he bumps into another lizard named Beans (Fisher), who guides him into the town of Dirt.  Here, Rango fits in like sore thumb.  He does his best, but this wild west town is no place for a Hawaiian shirt wearing actor.  So Rango decides to take the role of a lifetime.   He creates the persona of Rango (his name isn’t derived till this point), a legendary gunslinger known all across the desert as a rough and tumble cowboy.  News of his alleged travels reaches the mayor, who appoints him sheriff of Dirt  But when the town water supply is stolen, Rango has to live out those stories he concocted from fantasy.  Can Rango adapt to his western personality and save the townsfolk of Dirt from dehydration?  Or will his past catch up with him and expose his false background to his trusting new friends.

Still tryin’ to figure out what that freakin’ critter on the left is….

Rango is built perfectly around references to other movies.  If you can think of a western, Rango pays homage to it in some way.  The Spirit of the West, voiced by Timothy Olyphant, is an obvious tribute to the legendary western actor Clint Eastwood.  In the golf cart he drives you can even see his four Oscars sitting in a basket.  Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) has a subtle black row of scales that hint at the iconic Charles Bronson mustache from his role in Once Upon A Time In The West.  Rango draws tremendous inspiration from some of the best western genre films of all times, but also injects an aura of self-awareness into the plot; which I love.  The film is subtly self-aware, not in a look at the camera and wink kind of way, but in a “characters are aware of cinematic tactics without even knowing” kind of way.  Funny little hints our tiny townsfolk throw out lead us to believe the characters know the roles they are playing, but it’s done in a way only an adorable child’s movie can do.  But, it brings intelligence into the mix, not hiding where the creativity is stemming from, and that makes Rango respectable.  In the best sense, Rango plays out like an Eastwood film turned stage play, shrunk down to the size of lizards and rodents.

At the same time, the subject matter is easily some of the most mature when keeping children in mind.  Rango honestly feels like a film intended for an older audience, again cloaked under cute animals and funny problems.  Minor curse words, violence, and even death are all included in this tale.  There are themes that would fly over a small child’s head, but made easy to accept for youngens because there’s a talking lizard on-screen.  Verbinski doesn’t skip it on such crucial western tools such as shoot outs, guns, and greed just because it’s an animated film.  Rango is the type of film I would love to show a child given the circumstances, but also a film I wouldn’t mind popping in for my own personal enjoyment.

Honestly, I’m surprised this isn’t a Pixar film.  It’s that good.  Maybe it doesn’t encapsulate the ability to pull at your heartstrings like a Pixar film can, but what it lacks in that department it makes up with sheer entertainment.  Rango works on so many levels, but most importantly it works as a standalone exciting western.  Yeah, the movie about a talking lizard sheriff, his amphibian love interest, and a town full of furry/scaly brethren.  Also, Rango gets super props for being filmed in a totally lifelike manner.  This wasn’t your typical animated flick.  The CGI wasn’t just some computer codes strung together. Verbinski had Depp completely head to toe in a motion capture suit to capture every single nuance in his physical manner.  Rango actually was Johnny Depp.  Exactly the quirky mannerisms that Depp brings to characters like Jack Sparrow he was able to bring to the strange little cowboy Rango.  It added a personal touch to a character who normally wouldn’t have a visual connection to the actor voicing him.  Verbinski took the normal equation to an animated film, and totally one upped it.    Rango is my first surprise success of the year, and I had a total joy following our tiny hero every step of the way.

Final Rating: 8.5 adorable duels out of 10

Rango: sheriff/master chameleon


About Matt Donato

I love all things film. I'll watch any genre, any actor, at any time. This whole film critic thing is a passionate hobby for now which I'm balancing with working in the business world, but hey, someday, who knows?
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2 Responses to Rango

  1. Joe says:

    Only 8.5? Pixar is more “brand” than this… I can’t quite put my finger on what I mean with that. I’m not very excited about Cars 2 and Monsters University, but I’ll deal.

  2. Pingback: 2011: Recap of the Good, the Bad, and Everything Else | Cinema Scrutiny

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