Directed by Gore Verbinski
At this point, I was just about ready to jump Good Ship Gore Verbinski. In his attempt to balance a personal visual style with a commercial viability, he’s only managed alienate me. Most days I think of him as a slightly more talented Bret Ratner. Well, “Rango” has changed my mind, at least a little bit.
For what’s ostensibly a kid’s movie, it’s surprisingly smart. It’s a little on the, what you’d call, “meta” side. Within the opening minutes, our titular lizard is talking about acting and story-telling. Soon, a metaphor-speaking mentor is introduced. (In an amusingly surreal way.) Before you know it, this movie is cracking jokes about Joepsh Campbell and the Hero’s Journey. A mariachi band of owls function as a Greek chorus, telling us what's going to happen before it does, though this somehow doesn't spoil things. Before the main story proper even gets going, we get a visual shout-out to Hunter S. Thompson. In a kid’s movie! Crazy, right? It’s clear early on that “Rango” isn’t going to throw some celeb voices and fart jokes onto funny talking animals and call it a day.
By the time our hero wanders into the town of Dirt, the movie is well on its way to feeling like a real spaghetti western. The visual style here is impressive. While most CGI features these day focus on color and brightness, “Rango” is instead characterized by grit and detail. Though obviously cartoons, the animal characters are still designed to look as realistic as possible. Often, the character designs lean more towards amusingly ugly then cartoony cute. There’s a sense of lived-in reality to the setting.
The quirkiness extends pass the character designs. Rango is a captivating protagonist. Fancying himself a dramatic actor, his true personality seems rather meek. However, as soon as he gets into the flow of a story, he fashions a bravado, building a fantastic mythology around himself. It’s soon obvious that he’s really a coward but, as these things go, the townfolks buy his story. Through coincidence and luck, Rango is soon the hero of Dirt. It’s not the most original story. (The movie even lampshades that fact several times.) But Johnny Depp vivid vocals and the movie’s high comic energy sell it.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. Isla Fisher’s Miss Beans is clearly set-up as the love interest early on and, while that does happen, the character is a head-strong, independent woman… Uh, lizard. Her physical quirk seems to be an example of indie-movie wackiness trickling down to mainstream Hollywood, but Beans is far from a Manic Pixie Dream Lizard.
Abigail Brelins doesn’t have much to do as Priscilla, the mole/rat/schoolgirl thing, but the character is a good example of ugly-cute. Ned Beatty and Ray Winstone provide appropriate weight to their villainous roles. Later, Bill Nighy, his voice almost unrecognizable, shows up as Rattlesnake Jake, a villainous old gunslinger with a Gatling gun rattler. (He even has a pencil mustache!) Nighy oozes sinister dread and aggressive anger. It's the best performance of the film and one of the better performances of Nighy's recent career.
After a very funny opening act-and-a-half, the movie gets focused on regaining the lost water. A big chase scene, which then evolves into a bat-filled aerial battle, follows. It’s honestly a little disappointing. The movie drags a bit during these sections. Naturally, it isn’t long before a conspiracy against the town is uncovered. Our hero’s true identity is revealed, the populace’s trust is betrayed, and he’s run out of town. The movie’s self-reflective streak is forgotten as our hero (metaphorically) dies, journeys into a metaphorical cave, and encounters his mentor, Clint Eastwood. (Technically Timothy Olyphant doing a very good impersonation of Man-with-No-Name era Eastwood. But you don’t realize that until the credits.) You know what happens next. Its story-telling 101. Our hero journeys back into town and saves the day. The bad guys are vanquished. The legends of the west are eulogized. All is well.
Which isn’t to say that none of this isn’t incredibly satisfying. “Rango” knows the formula and follows it, but not without adding a lot of endearing quirkiness, strong characters, and a gorgeous visual aesthetic. Powered by Hans Zimmer’s amazing straight-out-of-Sergio-Leone score, it’s a kid’s flick that’s probably too smart, too dark, and too violent for most kids. But who even cares about that. Enjoy this treat for the surprise it is. Maybe Verbinski should stick to animation. [Grade: B+]