Rango (2011) Review (PG)

While Dreamworks’ forays into CGI animation have lacked the emotional punch of Pixar’s efforts, they have produced some quality films with works such as Kung Fu Panda and now Rango. With this one, they still haven’t been able to completely just write a good story of their own without lifting scenes and jokes (a la Shrek) from films that the adult viewers will know but the kids won’t (especially the Hunter S. Thompson gag). This is a step in the right direction, though. There are numerous references to classic westerns (and to Chinatown) in Rango, but they’re a little more subtle than what occurs in the Shrek films. A lot of the credit has to go to Gore Verbinski, better known as the director of films like The Ring and the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

The main storyline is lifted from Chinatown, but there’s enough new here to give the creators the bnefit of the doubt that they aren’t just stealing. It follows a store bought chameleon (Jonny Depp) living in a terrarium. He’s bored with life and lonely, spending his time using his imagination to pass the time. In a stroke of fate his terrarium is thrown from his owners’ traveling vehicle and onto a southwestern highway.

He is left behind to ponder his existence, wondering where to go from there until he gets advice from an armadillo (Alfred Molina) trying to ‘cross over to the other side’… of the road… to meet the fabled ‘Spirit Of the West. The armadillo sends him off wandering into the desert to find Dirt.

After some complications, the lizard does indeed find Dirt, a dying western town populated by various desert animals. He blends in (as chameleons do) and takes the name of ‘Rango’ from a something with a label notating that it was ‘Made in Durango’. He talks loud and fast to successfully impress the locals until he angers one of the town’s ruffians, a Gila Monster played by Ray Winstone. I won’t say what happens next, becuase that would be giving too much of the story away, but I will say Rango finagles his way into becoming the town’s sheriff. He soon becomes embroiled in a possible conspiracy involving the town’s water reserves. There are some surprises as to where the story goes, I think. There’s a little more here to chew on than most kids’ films (speaking of which, I wonder if this shouldn’t be PG-13. It stretched the boundary of what’s acceptable in a PG movie a few times).

The art of Rango is beautifully done. The film visually captures the heat and dryness of the desert. It also has the laid back tempo of westerns. The wind blows. Tumbleweeds roll. It’s quiet sometimes, almost to a spiritual degree. It does  posit existentialist philosophy throughout and sets that sort of tone. The film does move pretty well, though, especially becuase of the animated (no pun intended) lead character. Rango stares blankly, unmoving except for an occasional twitch when he’s figuring things out, but once he goes into action, the film hops along with him. There are a number of good action sequences.

The characters have some interesting aesthetic detailing (like the bird with the arrow through the head). Rango himself had a funny little crooked neck (figures that it’s straight in the poster above). The town was brilliantly rendered. I also really liked the discarded human objects that have become part of the structures of the various establishments. The roadrunners as horses was fairly clever, too, even if it brings up the deep philosohical question of  “Why is does Goofy wear clothes and is Mickey’s friend while Pluto doesn’t wear clothes and is Mickey’s pet?”

Verbinski did a good job matching actors to the various animals in the film. The voice acting is well suited to the characters with maybe one exception (in my humble opinion). The rattlesnake villain (Rattlesnake Jake) played by Bill Nighy (who I also like) could have used a better voice actor or at least one more suited to the role. Nighy is a rather dry British actor anyway, but he’s even blander than normal (that sounds like a shot doesn’t it?). Johnny Depp as Rango is acceptable as the hero.  I initially said what he did was ‘standard’, but after I went back and looked at the film, he did a better job than maybe I gave him credit for.  The real ‘characters’, though, are the critters he comes across.

Isla Fisher as Ms. Beans is a clear standout here, at least for me. Her midwestern/Texas accent is a highlight. Beans also has some funny personality tics that work as running jokes. The filmmakers probably could have called this ‘Beans’, lost Rango, and the film still would have worked.

I also found the part time narrators/Mariarchi players (all desert owls) particularly entertaining. As I said, Dreamworks’ efforts lack the impact of the stories Pixar tells, but this was still a pretty good effort. I liked this far more than i thought I would. It made my ‘Best 10 Films of 2011‘ list

4.5 of 5

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