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Rango (2011)

March 5, 2011


written by: James Ward Byrkit, Gore Verbinski & John Logan

produced by: John B. Curtis, Graham King & Gore Verbinski

directed by: Gore Verbinski

rated PG (for rude humor, language, action and smoking)

107 min.

U.S. release date: March 4, 2011


Smack dab in the center of Gore Verbinski’s new film is a protagonist with an identity crisis. At first, he is limited by his surroundings yet through his vivid imagination and inventive theatrics, his lonely soul is transported into a variety of comical scenarios that co-stars a headless Barbie and a surprised wind-up fish. Once he is accidentally dropped into the scorched wilds of the barren Mohave Desert, he must rely on his creative craftiness and turn it into a survival tool. Maybe even learn to blend in a little, he is a chameleon after all, it shouldn’t be too hard. And so begins his meandering adventure, light on exposition and heavy on the braggadocio, that propels him to his destiny, certain doom, and fiery cactus juice.

With his terrarium shattered along the highway in the middle of the desert, a sheltered chameleon (Johnny Depp) must deal with the outside world for the first time. It’s a shocking and drastic change of pace for this cock-eyed lounge lizard adorned only with a Hawaiian shirt (continuing the cartoon tradition of characters who freely roam with no pants), who must rely on his quick wit and charm to survive. Most of the time though, we find him manically running with his curled tail in tow, flailing his skinny arms in the air  like a panicked Kermit the Frog. He’s a curious character, humorous in appearance with his expressive bulbous eyes and crooked neck, and quickly becomes one that is easy for us to follow. Just what will become of this once domesticated pet in such an unforgiving terrain?


Parched and disoriented, he stumbles upon a desolate town called Dirt, the first of many homages to classic Westerns. He becomes the typical wandering Stranger, and takes the opportunity to embellish a false persona named Rango among the curious townsfolk. When one lie exaggerates into another and he is deemed a hero, the jittery character winds up deputized sheriff by Mayor Tortoise John (a Noah Cross- channeling Ned Beatty, fresh from his work as Lotso), a creature who has a good grasp on the needs of the town, specifically its water source. Soon, Rango is embroiled in a mystery, searching for water with a posse and a determined female lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher) who’s prone to frozen spells. Whether he is teetering between embracing his newfound responsibilities as he buries himself in more lies or he is making a run for it for fear of his true colors being found, this chameleon’s karma is all over the place.

The world of “Rango” is inhabited by a variety of colorful animals that may seem familiar to viewers, if not in voice than in character. On the outside, their craggy, scaly or furry hides are colored in earth tones, but inside we’re given the type of supporting players that are quite common in Westerns. There’s Doc (Stephen Root), a concerned high-strung banker, Roadkill, an introspective armadillo (Alfred Molina), and Priscilla (Abigail Breslin) a young trigger-happy possum, all of which interact with Rango as he tries to figure out what he should do. No western can be complete though without a handful of scummy gunslingers, and here we have Bad Bill (Ray Winstone) a crater-faced gila monster and the dastardly Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) who is out to coil his way back in Dirt, as long as that screeching hawk isn’t circling above the town. The animation does a fantastic job at serving the actors by providing expressive characters that serve to their strengths.

I also got a kick out of a couple of ancillary characters that provided a nice pep to the story as well as a knowing mythic nod that had me grinning. The quartet of mariachi owls are a hoot, providing musical accompaniment and biting commentary toward Rango’s journey. And then there’s the appearance of the Spirit of the West, who gives Rango some poignant prompting that causes him to reassess his situation. I’m not gonna say the actor who plays this poncho-wearing character, but the fact that it’s not who you think it is only confirms just how perfect the actor nails it. Once you do find out, it’s really no surprise.

The great music by Hans Zimmer, Rick Garcia and Los Lobos also enhance the atmosphere excellently. Combining an assortment of horns and strings from famous Spaghetti Westerns with orchestral moments of epic adventure. The sound of “Rango” is a perfect throwback to all the classic sounds of the Old Western films and television shows.

RANGO Still 3




It was obvious how much fun Depp had with writer/director Verbinski on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, but I would say he’s having even more fun here. He seems to let loose more being heard and not seen, delivering a high-spirited performance that displays great comic timing and just the right wackiness to match Rango’s body language. When I first saw the trailer, I thought it looked like an animated version of Depp’s role as Raoul Duke from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, the Hunter S. Thompson film (look for a blink-and-you-miss-him appearance of Gonzo, which is a wink to Depp’s love for the writer). There certainly is a bit of that Duke in this role, (not The Duke, mind you) and Depp also seems to channel some of the crazy Old West roles Don Knotts played back in the day. It is definitely a welcome step up from the bland part he had in the underwhelming dud “The Tourist”. 

While this is a reunion for writer/director Verbinski and his “Pirates of the Caribbean” star Depp, there are still some firsts to be found here. It’s the first animated feature from special effects giant Industrial Light & Magic and it’s also the first time one to have  smoking” including in its rating description. Which makes “Rango” yet another conundrum in marketing. Do they focus their advertising on children even though there are some frightening situations, tobacco use, and gun-toting violence? Since it’s coming from Nickelodeon Films, Paramount Pictures may not have a choice, but to at least start with the youngins and then wrangle the older folks, but most adults still see an animated feature and think: kids.


That’s too bad, because adults will miss out on a clever story, filled with some quirky characters in humorous situations. Especially those adults who’ll pick up on some sly pop-culture references (no they don’t hit you over the head like the “Shrek” films) or are familiar with classic films. Many of the characters are nods from memorable Westerns such as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, and “Cat Ballou” and several scenes are reminiscent of “High Noon” with a little “Yojimbo” thrown in to the mix.  The film’s biggest likeness can be found in the main storyline and how it resembles the power struggle for water in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”.  I caught on right away and anyone who knows that great film should appreciate and enjoy how Verbinski and Logan integrate such an iconic story into a different medium.

The visuals here are breathtaking, intricately detailed and quite often, something to sit back and behold. From some trippy surreal sequences (often involving kinetic action) to the weathered hides of the Dirt residents, there is a wide range of visual delight. One cool thing I noticed during the zippy closing credits was the listing of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins listed as a Visual Consultant. I smiled and nodded, acknowledging this as an unsurprising inclusion of his signature sepia-hues amid the dust-blown landscapes and its sun-blindingly bright lighting choices. He may just have consulting the animators, but having the man who lensed films like “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” can’t hurt your Western, regardless of it inhabiting crawly critters or flawed humans. This isn’t the first time Deakins consulted on animated features, he also was “WALL-E” and “How to Train Your Dragon”, both went on to receive Oscar nods and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see “Rango” with one as well.

At two hours, some may feel “Rango” is too long of a tango, but it moved along at enough of a fast-pace for me not to take notice. I just marveled at all the gorgeous visuals and was glad this wasn’t yet another animated film that saw the need to slap on 3D. The gist of the storyline may not be entirely original but its execution is and seeing reptiles, amphibians, cats and rodents play the parts only rejuvenates the familiar.

One downside I can think of is the expectations much of the audience may have going in, as they look for the bellylaughs. I found myself blurting out some genuine laughs throughout, but mostly (and much to my delight) I experienced an immensely enjoyable and clever film.



RATING: ***1/2


6 Comments leave one →
  1. windi noel permalink
    July 15, 2011 8:41 pm

    All I have heard about this movie is that it’s not really kid appropriate. Your review goes into that, I don’t think it was advertised right, because while I did not see very many previews for it (since i don’t watch tv), the little snippets here and there that I did catch just made it seem really weird to me. I could tell it wasn’t really a ‘kids movie’, but it was clearly being marketed as one, which I found odd. As a result, I did not even have the desire to go see it, and neither did my boys. But after reading this, I might. I just might.


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