If Noah Cross’s foreboding white Stetson in Chinatown still sets the hairs of your arm on end, then there’s a good chance you’ll take a lot more away from Gore Verbinski’s animated effort Rango than most other audience members. Because thanks to the westerns and noiry mysteries that came before it, the cheekier aspects of the lizard-led adventure pay tribute like an homage to all things Sergio Leone and Roman Polanski. Sounds like a tall order for what’s been advertised as a goofy kids’ movie set in the Wild West starring an unlikely hero (a formerly terrarium-bound pet lizard named… well, we never find out for sure) who’s charged with rescuing the small town of Dirt’s dwindling water supply.
The truth is, though, this latest pairing of Verbinski and the ubiquitous Johnny Depp (they previously worked on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies together) is anything but a family film. From it’s high-brow references to its questionable violence and tongue-in-cheek innuendoes, there’s nothing here that necessarily merits a higher MPAA rating, but most of it will certainly go over younger moviegoers’ heads.
But let’s start with what works for Rango as a family adventure movie. The visuals are obviously one of the most successful elements at play here. The animation is astounding, especially considering it’s coming out of hit-or-miss Nickelodeon Studios – perhaps the work of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) is what’s truly excelling. There are definitely remnants of ILM’s “ugly-pretty” work on The Dark Crystal and E.T. popping up here. And that’s the recurring theme throughout – the characters are across-the-board hideous (from scaly reptiles to grungy rats walking on their hinders and sporting Old West attire and moth-eaten bonnets), but the details put into the animation are supremely commendable. The townspeople of Dirt are simply fascinating reads, right down to the smallest hunk of matted fur or tobacco-worn yellowed tooth.
But for a film buff, the most fun you’ll have watching Rango is by pinpointing the myriad film references being made throughout the movie. From its obvious borrowing from the major connecting plot of Chinatown - right down to the aforementioned Stetson – to its Clint Eastwood western roots, Rango’s story is a big slice of geeking out on the parts of the writers and animators. You can tell they had great fun putting this series of classic vignettes together. And leading the story, a Greek chorus of sorts, a quartet of owls in Mariachi garb singing the fate of our frail hero, like something out of a Sergio Leone epic. (And let’s not forget that bat-equals-helicopter scene in which you could practically hear Robert Duvall gushing over the smell of napalm while “Ride of the Valkyries” blasted in the background.)
Speaking of the aural work at play, it’s nice to see Depp returning to what he truly does best – avoiding phoning it in for a paycheck (*cough* The Tourist *cough*) and jumping on-board with a truly unique piece of work. Does anyone even remember a world when he wasn’t the country’s biggest box office star and was in fact the pale weirdo who headlined Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands? This movie definitely helps one to remember those days fondly.
So, though most ticket-buyers will probably have come for the Depp, they will certainly stay for the host of gruesome but endearing characters that make up Rango’s posse, straight outta Dirt. Though Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, and Ned Beatty (the poor man can find no work these days aside from the menacing and power-hungry in animated outings) headline the voice cast, there is ample talent on display amongst the lesser-known actors. Alex Manugian is full of demented glee as the creepy but fun-loving Spoons (some sort of bearded mouse, I presume?), and Gil Birmingham is uncomfortably humorous as the odd-duck “Wounded Bird” who doesn’t seem to realize he has an arrow pierced through his eye socket.
And that’s just about the gist of Rango. Through a two-hour sit, you’re met with the likes of every disgusting rodent you can think of, donning never-washed western garments and at least one or two gruesome battle scars, and a story that makes you feel as though The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was just reincarnated. It’s enjoyable, to say the very least.
Notes: Rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking.