With humor as dry as its dusty landscape and a sprawling blend of classic cinematic references, Gore Verbinski’s Rango is an animated film for movie lovers who don’t mind getting their adventuresome fix and consistent laughs from a misfit pack of talking varmints and one unforgettable reptile.
At first, the klutzy, crooked-necked pet chameleon entertains himself with imaginative one-act plays and starves for friendly interaction. But when a car accident leaves the lonely lizard stranded in the desert, he saunters into the forsaken town of Dirt where, using his honed knack for improvisation, he assumes the name Rango and a heroic persona to match.
Voiced by Johnny Depp and infused with his comic timing, Rango’s exaggerated movements mimic Depp’s eccentric style, an endearing blend of natural charisma, offbeat silliness, and freakish sensibility.
After Rango regales them with an off-the-cuff tall tale of unflinching bravery, the hopeful denizens believe this boastful newcomer is the key to rescuing them from their looming water crisis. The divine spigot drops only mud now and their reserves, a nearly empty Ozarka bottle, won’t last for much longer. Thus, it’s up to the new sheriff in town and lizard-out-of-water (literally) to find a solution and uncover a dangerous conspiracy that threatens to keep his new friends forever thirsty.
On his energetic adventure, Rango encounters a deadly hawk, a manipulative mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty), a ragtag horde of hillbilly moles, a sage-like armadillo named Roadkill (Alfred Molina), and the “Spirit of the West,” who looks and sounds like an iconic silver screen gunslinger. Thankfully, though there is a lizardly love interest in the form of Beans (Isla Fisher), the story isn’t driven by a familiar awkward romance as Verbinski maintains the focus on his titular hero and Rango’s increasingly harrowing predicament.
Narrated by a mariachi band of owls and featuring a mangy crew of unusual vermin, it becomes immediately clear this movie isn’t your typical talking animal cartoon. For starters, the violent, foreboding tone isn’t quite kid friendly, and its grown-up dialogue and existential odyssey are sure to zip over the heads of children accustomed to Disney’s cutesy appeal.
There are nods to Depp’s drug-fueled Hunter S. Thompson role in Fear and Loathing, tributes to the sun-drenched duels of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, and allusions to the seminal works of Kubrick and Coppola. Its occasionally surreal but always beautiful style even invokes the aesthetic of a distorted mirage and the dripping art of Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory.”
This raucous mix is the first animated feature from Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski and, hopefully, the first of many created by Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas’ special effects company broadening its technical horizons even further. The frame-by-frame construction is exquisite, a bevy of intricate details down to the matted fur of Rango’s hirsute sidekick Spoons (Alex Manugian) and the bristling scales of his mortal enemy, Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy). As a whole, the film’s refreshing uniqueness and magnificent achievements herald a significant challenge to Pixar’s perpetual reign over Toon Town. Animators and movie fans, Rango is calling you out.
4.5 out of 5.