While watching Rango I couldnít help but think of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and the way director Gore Verbinski so capably managed the demands of combining that grisly world of skeletons and corpses with a lighter sense of humor. In Rango Verbinski re-teams with Johnny Depp, this time for an animated movie which in theory, is geared towards kids, but in practice ends up taking the Pirates of the Caribbean approach by combining a skewed view of the macabre with the wry, snarky wit of Depp voicing the filmís hero. Itís something no other computer animated movie has ever really attempted before, let alone pulled off. In Rango it sort of works, and even if it didnít the movie should get at least an extra star for trying something so unique and ambitious.
The storyís all wrapped up in a classic Western tale. A stranger comes to a dusty, struggling, frontier town and tells everyone heís a hero. He isnít, but they believe him, and before long he finds himself out of his depth and in deep trouble, facing down real villains in a desperate bid to save the town. In Rango a lizard, voiced by Johnny Depp, is that hero. We never actually know his name, maybe he doesnít have one, but in the midst of concocting the fantastical, heroic tale which explains his origins for the townís folk he calls himself Rango (presumably because he thinks it sounds tough) and no one is the wiser.
At first Rango is more Don Knotts than John Wayne. He wanders around town spinning yarns, selling his bumbling and running as not ineptitude and cowardice, but carefully calculated heroism. Before the movieís over heíll have morphed from Don Knotts into the spitting, animated lizard version of Clint Eastwood, eventually even getting the Wild West iconís blessing in one of the most bizarre yet wonderful cameos youíre likely to see in any movie this year (surpassed only by a cameo of a completely different kind, earlier in the film). Rangoís character arc works and the underpinnings of his story, as well-worn as the hard-packed ground of the desert itself, never get old no matter how many times you see them.
Rangoís tale feels familiar and thatís a good thing, because though the plot is something youíve seen before, almost nothing else about this movie is. Things get strange in Rango and the decision to use such a standard Western archetype as a framework for that oddity was a good one, keeping the audience from completely spinning off the rails as the movieís cavalcade of freakish desert creatures parades across the screen. Parents with young children be warned: this movie may not be for them.
The town of Dirt is weird, really weird. Populated by the most gruesomely envisioned versions of every desert creature you can imagine, itís a place of hard-scrabble living, dim lit taverns, and dangerously disturbed, scaly residents. The movie somehow remains a western as it mixes in acid-trip like fantasy sequences, natural wonders, magic cactusí, and unexpected commentary on the wasteful nature of Las Vegas. Thereís not a single frame or idea in this film that isnít trying so hard to be original it almost hurts. Actually, at times it does hurt.
If Rango has a problem itís that it has too many ideas, that itís trying too hard. At some point it all skews very close to becoming a complete jumble, the groups of background characters surrounding Rango all merging together into one, amorphous blob of odd. Rango has a million completely unique ideas and it tries to do all of them. Itís never overwhelming, but it is distracting. Itís hard to be engaged by anything thatís going on no matter how wonderful Hans Zimmerís score or how mind-blowingly cinematic Verbinski makes every single shot.
Hereís the best way I can think of to explain whatís gone wrong here, by way of example. The movie contains no fewer than five different villains. Some of them are connected, some of them arenít. The first bad guy we meet doesnít last long, and heís taken out early on. The second bad guy eventually turns out to be a lowly thug, who sort of just fades into the background where heís ignored. The third group of evildoers goes through a strange character arc from comic relief, to evil and dangerous to mostly harmless and then later, transformed for no particular reason into heroes. The fourth villain is a stone cold killer, but we never see him at all until the final act, and by then itís too late to develop him into anything truly substantive. The fifth nefarious figure is there throughout the entire film, and having seen Westerns you know exactly what he is, but the story spends a lot of time pretending heís not. All of these villains are actually, on their own, great ideas but with five of them crammed into a single movie, divided up by their own carved out little space; it never truly fits together into a contiguous air of menace. Rango probably should have picked just two or three, and saved the rest for the sequel.
I really hope there is a sequel. Youíll walk out of Rango wanting desperately to like it, maybe even hoping for more of it. Verbinskiís film is so unique and so ambitious that despite the ways it which it doesnít connect, youíre sure to forgive it. Itís the kind of work that deserves applause, the kind of filmmaking that teeters right on the edge of being revolutionary. No one else has used animation like this, itís a first, and worthy of your attention.
Reviewed By: Josh Tyler