Friday, March 4, 2011

Movie Review: "Rango"

A witty and exciting mashup of Westerns, film noir and whatever else passes through director Gore Verbinski's brain, "Rango" is easily the most original non-Pixar animated film in years. Don't let the Nickelodeon label and talking animals fool you: This is far from standard kiddie fare.

Johnny Depp voices the titular character, a chameleon left stranded in the desert when his aquarium topples from the family car. Following advice from an unfortunate armadillo (Alfred Molina), the lizard seeks shelter in the ramshackle town of Dirt, where he quickly impresses the locals with far-fetched tales of bravery, assumes the name Rango and is appointed sheriff. Although he'd much rather be acting, Rango quickly takes to his new role of protecting the town's lizards, possums and other assorted creatures, and guarding the village's diminishing water supply.

On paper, this sounds like just another fish-out-of-water tale, a popular staple with animated films. But John Logan's script, coupled with Verbinski's outrageous visual style and Depp's love for everything off-kilter, make this something far better.

Rather than parody Western tropes, "Rango" presents itself as a true genre tale, complete with shoot-outs in the town square, a thrilling chase through the desert and a saloon full of shady drunks. There's the shifty town mayor, a dastardly rattlesnake villain and a pretty little lizard to save. "Rango" is not a spoof, but a true Western comedy, respectful of the genre and finding laughs not by poking fun at its cliches but celebrating them and mixing its humor in with the story.

"Rango" could easily be a child's gateway for great movies. In addition to its Western roots, the plot also borrows heavily from "Chinatown," pays homage to "Apocalypse Now" and even makes a nod to Depp's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." The film's full of witty references and sly in-jokes that will delight cinephiles, and I imagine adults will get a good chuckle when Rango visits the Spirit of the West, who looks fairly familiar.

The references will likely go over children's heads - I doubt many preteens have watched "Chinatown" recently. But unlike so many recent animated films, which rely almost entirely on pop culture-centric gags, "Rango" will enthrall kids with its nonstop arsenal of gags and action sequences. It should be noted, however, that the adventure gets a bit intense in some parts and parents may be surprised at some of the language flying out of the toons' mouths; it's nothing that violates "Rango's" PG-rating, but hearing cartoon characters say "hell" and "damn" make take some parents off guard.

A visual marvel, "Rango" is beautifully animated, with a bright and diverse pallet for Verbinski to play with. Sometimes the colors pop off the screen, as with Rango, his Hawaiian shirts and lush playscape in the aquarium. Other times, Verbinski bathes the characters in shadows and takes advantage of the film's Western background to have his characters charge through the dust and grime of the Old West. As he proved with his "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, Verbinski loves bizarre visuals, and Rango's adventures in the dessert give him room to play with some delightfully weird images, like a wind-up goldfish or headless Barbie doll. It's "High Noon" by way of Terry Gilliam.

Delightful and exciting as "Rango" often is, the film sometimes feels ready to topple over. Depp is doing a variation on the eccentric, panicked hero he often plays, but sometimes his jokes fizzle and his character falls flat. The film is so packed with ideas that, at times, it's rather unwieldy and overstuffed. The film also resorts to bathroom humor several times, which should delight kids but will have adults rolling their eyes.

Originally published in the Advisor & Source newspapers.

But how often do we have that problem with animated films these days? Most the time, anything without the Pixar label is struggling to get out a steady stream of easy gags and dated pop culture references. "Rango" is a true original that works more often than not. And those times it fails, it deserves quite a bit of credit for trying something different.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.