A film review by Craig J. Koban March 18, 2011


2011, PG, 107 mins.


With the voices of:

Rango/Lars: Johnny Depp / Beans: Isla Fisher / Priscilla: Abigail Breslin / Mayor: Ned Beatty / Roadkill: Alfred Molina / Jake: Bill Nighy / Doc/Merrimack: Stephen Root / Balthazar: Harry Dean Stanton / Bad Bill: Ray Winstone

Directed by Gore Verbinski / Written by John Logan.

I usually lament when film critics engage in semi-hyperbolic descriptions of films like, for instance, you’ve never seen anything like it.  Yet, as I left the theatre after viewing RANGO I felt that the overused sentiment perhaps best epitomized director Gore Verbinski’s first foray into computer animated filmmaking.  

Just consider, if you will, its eclectic credits: it has the director and star of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN Trilogy, so to speak; the screenwriter of THE AVIATOR, THE LAST SAMURAI, and GLADIATOR; the cinematographer of last year’s TRUE GRIT and many other Coen Brothers’ classics serving in an advisory capacity; and animation from a legendary company known more for their groundbreaking effects in live action films.    

All of this…plus it has story involving a lost chameleon and nods to classic western film iconography.  So…yeah…trust me, you’ve never seen anything quite like RANGO. 

The film is a joyous, colorful, and vivacious triumph on so many levels, the first of which being that it marks an astounding first effort in the animation genre for Industrial Light and Magic, and the film is as beautifully lush, magnificently derailed, and gorgeously crafted as anything in the best of the Pixar canon.  Secondly, RANGO marks a euphoric break from Hollywood’s annoyingly incessant need to release seemingly all animated features in 3D (HIP-HIP-HORAY!!), so to witness the visual pleasures of this film in all of its striking and sumptuous two-dimensional glory is a real refreshing treat.  Thirdly, RANGO is a devilishly sly and capriciously offbeat love ballad to moviegoers that love movies, more specifically, the classic westerns of yesteryear.  Very few films – animated or not – are simultaneously as wonderful to engage in on a visual and satiric level as RANGO, and how terrific is it for a mainstream animated film to appease the more shrewd and sophisticated tastes of its adult audience members. 

The title character is a lizard – and quite an ugly and weird looking one at that – voiced by Johnny Depp with just the right frivolous charm and energy that makes his most past memorable screen creations linger.  Rango enjoys his carefree life in an aquarium of his human owners, that is until an accident has his home thrown out of a moving vehicle where it crashes on the desert highway.   He meets a strange armadillo (the great Alfred Molina) that claims to be seeking the enigmatic Spirit of the West, but during this time Rango is nearly plucked from the ground and eaten by a vicious hawk.  To make matters worse, he has no water and he’s in the desert. 

The next day he hooks up with another lizard named Beans (the delightful Isla Fisher), a rancher’s daughter who decides to take him to the town of Dirt, and it is at this point where Rango completely leaves his 21st Century life and enters into the 19th Century Wild West settlement that is populated by all sorts of dirty, grungy, and unsightly desert critters.  Rango seems to initial fit right in with the other townsfolk and has a meeting with its mayor (Ned Beatty), who happens to be a turtle in a mechanized wheelchair.  While in a nearby saloon Rango uses his performance bravado (and considerable foolishness) to pass himself off as a fearsome, courageous, and tough as nails gunslinger that is afraid of nothing and nobody.  Of course, Rango is about as dangerous as flattened road kill. 



Nonetheless, he manages to convince most of the residents of Dirt that he is who he claims to be, especially after one nearly fatal and extremely fortuitous confrontation with the hawk that previously chased him in the desert (he accidentally kills him with a water tower he inadvertently caused to collapse), but all of the eyewitnesses and awestruck by his abilities.  As a result, the mayor appoints Rango as the new sheriff and gives him the task of finding what happened to the town’s recently stolen water supply, but it soon becomes clear that both Rango and the town are in way over their heads when secrets are revealed. 

As mentioned, the artistry on display here is exquisite and extraordinary.  Verbinski has always been noted as a director with an evocative visual sense, and here he made a wise choice of getting Roger Deakins (who previously served as a consultant on HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON) to assist him with given the film a live action feel for camera setups and compositions (echoing Sergio Leone in spades) amidst all of the absurd conglomeration of oddball characters.  One element that’s really unique is how the film never attempts to make any of its personas loveably adorable, toy-ready creations.  Part of what makes this film so delightfully weird is that Rango and the denizens of Dirt are, at face value, physically unappealing.  They have quirky and giddy personalities and are wildly caricatured, to be sure, but there is little attempt here to ensure that they meet the obligatory cuteness factor that most other animated films stridently adhere to. 

For as beautifully and imaginatively envisioned as RANGO is, it's the film’s unbridled strangeness – it is, like, potently and unabashedly weird - and cunning sense of humor that stands out the most.  That, and the fact that the film appreciates the collective movie smarts of its viewers.   Paying loving homage to great films of the past should not be confused, say, with the endless pop culture riffing that the SHREK films are know for; RANGO not only wholeheartedly understands the visual conventions of the western genre, but it also wisely understands how to dryly comment on the genre’s conventions as well.  Rango himself – with his twitchy and hyper-anxious inflections – bares more than a passing resemblance to Don Knotts in THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST.  A machine gun-touting rattlesnake antagonist (voiced with a venomous relish by Bill Nighy) echoes Lee Van Cleef in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY.  The film’s climatic showdown is ripped right out of HIGH NOON.  Hell, there is even a surreal fantasy sequence where Rango comes across with the apparition of The Man With No Name himself (voiced by Timothy Olyphant, with an uncanny Eastwoodian timbre) that makes the film’s adoration with the genre all the more complete.   

The referencing does not end merely with the western in RANGO: Just consider the mayor of Dirt, with his white hat, suspenders, and quietly imposing voice that nods to John Huston’s legendary turn in CHINATOWN.  Then there is a sensationally staged and wondrously executed action chase sequence that involves large and carnivorous bats swooping in like attack helicopters at Rango and company to the soundtrack of Ride of the Valkyries (APOCALYPSE NOW, anyone?).  That stunning scene also reminded me of the climax of the first STAR WARS for the way the bats dived into the desert trenches much like the space ships did in the Death Star’s trenches.  Perhaps RANGO’S most clear cut wink to George Lucas’ sci-fi film is with the delightful scene in the saloon, where Verbinski lets his faux-camera pan and linger on all of the creepy and crawly critters, much Lucas did with his drunken alien patrons that populated STAR WARS' cantina.  Like STAR WARS, RANGO is an endlessly inviting filmgoing experience for how it draws you in and allows you to lovingly engage in the details that occupy every corner of the screen. 

RANGO is an endlessly smart, rambunctiously funny and entertaining original for the animation genre, one that is long on looks and meticulous workmanship and astonishing for its cheery sense of free abandon as a travelogue through some of the more cherished films of the past.  The film does have some issues, though: the plot itself takes a bit too long to find its posture to confidently carry on (the opening third of the film comes off more as creatively amusing vignettes than they do as part of an overarching storyline).  RANGO has been described as “kidult” – appeasing both young and old in equal measure, but I would lean more towards its placating of elder viewers.  Far, far too many tykes at the screening I attended were squirming, lacking engagement, and asking their generally amused parents too many questions about the film.  No doubt, the film’s satiric leanings and cinematic referencing will go completely over child viewers’ heads, but I guess it’s a very minor quibble that adults will find RANGO a much richer and more sneakily appealing experience.  

Older viewers will also, mark my word, leave the theatre feeling like they’ve never seen anything like it. 

  H O M E