It would be unfair, and inaccurate, to call Rango a one-joke movie. There may be two or three; I didn’t count. The first laugh comes with the appearance of a funny-looking Mariachi bird quartet who opens the film and act as a kind of Greek chorus.
The central joke—in fact, the film’s entire conceit—is the sheer absurdity of its main character, a quirky, delusional pet lizard who sports an Aloha shirt and maintains a never-ending line of chatter. His stream-of-consciousness-style dialogue is filled with puns, non-sequiturs, and off-the-wall references, which are good for a couple of chuckles in the early scenes of Rango. In fact, the film gives every indication of being original and fun, which it is—for a while.
After the lizard is separated from his human family and stranded in the desert, he wanders into a desolate—
town called Dirt and, being a theatrical sort of fellow, improvises a persona for himself as a Western hero. It’s the incongruity of Rango in this role that’s supposed to propel the rest of the movie. (Incidentally, the creatures of Dirt spout the same kind of random dialogue as Rango; one creature recalls a time when he found “a human spinal column in his fecal matter.” Now, that’s comedy!)
From this point on, there is sufficient story and character development to fill out a 20-minute short. Unfortunately, Rango runs 107 minutes, and as it ambles along you can feel the life draining from it, like air slowly leaking from a helium balloon.
Much has been made of the fact that director Gore Verbinski, best known for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and writer John Logan, whose credits include Gladiator and The Last Samurai, have never worked in animation before. It shows. While master cinematographer Roger Deakins consulted on the staging (as he did on last year’s How to Train Your Dragon), to good effect, I wonder if anyone lent a guiding hand to the filmmakers on story development and pacing.
As for the look of the characters, the folks at Industrial Light and Magic who designed and animated the picture seem to have gone for realism, making sure we can discern every hair on the furry creatures and every ugly scale on the reptiles and amphibians. Rango actually becomes endearing after a short time, but many of the other characters are just plain gruesome. (Don’t ask me about the rattlesnake who turns up toward the end.)
Fans of Johnny Depp will enjoy his voice work as the nutty Rango; he is obviously having a good time. Ned Beatty’s voice is easily recognizable as the main villain, giving him a one-two punch after working as the nasty Lotso in Toy Story 3. Naturally, he turns in a fine job. The other actors do serviceable work.
This movie must have sounded like a fun idea when it was spitballed by Verbinski and his colleagues. Too bad it didn’t turn out better.