Rated PG, 107 min. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Voices by Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 4, 2011
Watch out, cartoon critters: There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Rango. This animated Western feature continues the working relationship between The Pirates of the Caribbean (I-III) director Verbinski and that series’ top-lined swashbuckler Depp, who here gives voice to Rango. Rango, however, has more in common with Verbinski’s debut feature, Mousehunt, a film that can be described as nothing less than a live-action cartoon in which two homeowners chase a diabolical mouse that is destroying their sanity, à la Tom and Jerry. In Rango, Verbinski opts for pure animation but again goes against the grain by making it a Western (the genre that many had declared dead until the True Grit remake put the lie to that particular illusion). Not only is Rango a Western cartoon, but it is one that is clearly aimed at adults more than the children who happen to accompany their custodians to the theatre. (One of the hallmarks of modern-day animation is that it contains jokes aimed at different age groups, which allows kids to grow into the films as they rewatch them in subsequent years and allows grownups the privilege of having their own private laughs while thanklessly serving as movie chaperones on rained-out soccer days.) Perhaps “adult” is too constricting a word to use, as it might conjure up images of the bawdy animation work of Ralph Bakshi, so it might be better to simply say that Rango is not juvenile. Although there are no unsophisticated fart or poop jokes, Rango does contain references to such things as “fecal matter” and “prostates.” Rango is a lizard who imagines himself an actor who then literally breaks through the fourth wall of his terrarium when the hatchback car in which he is riding swerves and sends him careening. Abandoned in the desert amid the shards of his former home, Rango makes his way to the nearby town of Dirt, which is experiencing a mysterious water shortage. The actor in Rango seizes the opportunity to invent a grandiloquent new image for himself, and as in many a Western, the stranger in town is suddenly promoted to the rank of sheriff. Along the way to solving the mystery of the vanishing water supply, Rango contains more inventive movie references than any Quentin Tarantino film. Obvious references to spaghetti Westerns, Cat Ballou, and High Noon vie with delicious tips of the hat to Chinatown, The Wizard of Oz, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the last of which appears just at the point you begin to realize that the Rango lizard in the desert looks a lot like a toned-down Ralph Steadman illustration). The animation work is a first for the special-effects outfit Industrial Light & Magic, and the company has created images that are unique and very satisfying. The music score by Hans Zimmer also contributes immensely to the film’s overall effect. It is Depp, however, who really nails this thing by simply blending in with all the other voice talent and characters and not reverting to the oversized Captain Jack Sparrow swagger. Rango becomes the hero of his own story, and for this he needs no stinkin’ badge.