Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Ryan Gosling To Star In 'Blade Runner 2' Ryan Gosling To Star In 'Blade Runner 2' Watch: New Trailer For 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Flies Into The Galaxy Watch: New Trailer For 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Flies Into The Galaxy Watch: First Teaser Trailer For Quentin Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight' Watch: First Teaser Trailer For Quentin Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight' 'Macbeth,' Todd Haynes' 'Carol,' Pixar's 'Inside Out' Lead 2015 Cannes Film Festival Line-Up 'Macbeth,' Todd Haynes' 'Carol,' Pixar's 'Inside Out' Lead 2015 Cannes Film Festival Line-Up Watch: Zack Snyder Teases The Full Trailer For ‘Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice' & Upcoming IMAX Event Watch: Zack Snyder Teases The Full Trailer For ‘Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice' & Upcoming IMAX Event Ryan Gosling & Edgar Wright Talk 'Lost River,' Shooting In Detroit, And Advice For First Time Filmmakers Ryan Gosling & Edgar Wright Talk 'Lost River,' Shooting In Detroit, And Advice For First Time Filmmakers Netflix & Marvel's 'Daredevil': The Pros, The Cons, The Verdict Netflix & Marvel's 'Daredevil': The Pros, The Cons, The Verdict Netflix's 'Daredevil' Is An Awesome Achievement And Marvel's Most Graphic & Grounded Effort To Date Netflix's 'Daredevil' Is An Awesome Achievement And Marvel's Most Graphic & Grounded Effort To Date Watch: Action-Packed Footage In 2 New “Avengers: Age of Ultron’ TV Spots, Plus Watch Interviews With The Entire Cast Watch: Action-Packed Footage In 2 New “Avengers: Age of Ultron’ TV Spots, Plus Watch Interviews With The Entire Cast Watch: Trailer For 'The Great Beauty' Director Paolo Sorrentino's 'Youth' Starring Michael Caine & Rachel Weisz Watch: Trailer For 'The Great Beauty' Director Paolo Sorrentino's 'Youth' Starring Michael Caine & Rachel Weisz Joss Whedon Says He's Not Making 'Avengers: Infinity War' Because It's "A Young Man’s Game" Joss Whedon Says He's Not Making 'Avengers: Infinity War' Because It's "A Young Man’s Game" Watch: Take 7 Minutes And Learn The History Of Film Editing Watch: Take 7 Minutes And Learn The History Of Film Editing 'Avengers: Age Of Ultron' Called "Amazing" And "More Emotional" With "Insane Action" After First Screening 'Avengers: Age Of Ultron' Called "Amazing" And "More Emotional" With "Insane Action" After First Screening Joss Whedon Calls 'Jurassic World' Clip "70s Era Sexist" Joss Whedon Calls 'Jurassic World' Clip "70s Era Sexist" The 20 Most Anticipated Films Of The 2015 Tribeca Film Festival The 20 Most Anticipated Films Of The 2015 Tribeca Film Festival The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki

Review: 'Rango' Is A Sweetly Surreal Animated Western

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist March 2, 2011 at 4:59AM

It's strange to think that Gore Verbinski, an accomplished visual stylist who began in commercials (he was responsible for those "Bud-weis-er" talking bullfrog ads), would want to follow up the daunting and problem-plagued back-to-back shoots of the two latter 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies with an animated film. Not only are animated films notoriously time-consuming and hard to crack, but this would be his first fully animated film and the debut feature film from Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas' wizardly visual effects house. And this was supposed to be his "small" movie.
2


It's strange to think that Gore Verbinski, an accomplished visual stylist who began in commercials (he was responsible for those "Bud-weis-er" talking bullfrog ads), would want to follow up the daunting and problem-plagued back-to-back shoots of the two latter 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies with an animated film. Not only are animated films notoriously time-consuming and hard to crack, but this would be his first fully animated film and the debut feature film from Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas' wizardly visual effects house. And this was supposed to be his "small" movie.

Thankfully, the "smallness" Verbinski was going for isn't apparent in the final film. "Rango," which stars Johnny Depp as a chameleon suffering from a profound identity crisis, is a sprawling, whirligig animated contraption that is oversized in every way – thematically, narratively, visually. But never does the movie feel overstuffed or manic, with long, ambient chunks of deep contemplation. In short: it's the weirdest, most gorgeously realized animated film in recent memory. And it blows into the Cineplex like a Western gust of fresh air, making other animated fare ("Gnomeo and Juliet," we're looking in your direction) tame and flavorless in comparison.


After a brief title sequence, in which a trio of mariachi owls addresses the audience and sets things up grimly (our hero is destined to die), we meet the title character: Rango (Depp) is a chameleon in a terrarium, acting out imaginary scenarios that make the toys in Bonnie's room (in "Toy Story 3") seem like community theater day players. He's looking for meaning, a character in search of character, asking the big questions, when an accident (told, breathlessly, in the style of recent Robert Zemeckis motion capture joints, but without the cold-eyed roboticism) leaves him stranded in the Mojave desert. He's alone and dying of thirst, eventually stumbling across the dusty frontier town of Dirt, populated by various arid creatures (tarantulas, horny toads, gila monsters, etc.).

Rango, with his crooked neck bent into a zigzag (or maybe it’s a question-mark), sees the opportunity to reinvent himself, and he does: instead of a pampered pet, he's now a storied gunslinger, able to take down seven goons with a single bullet. The townspeople, whose water supply has been dwindling, is looking for optimism. In Rango they see a hero; their salvation. And Rango tries to live up to their assumption, even if he is prone to flights-of-fancy and a goony naïveté. There's never anything to suggest that Rango is trying to take advantage of the weary townfolk and his enthusiasm is charming, not predatory.

Visually, the movie is ravishing. It's apparent from the film's earliest moments, which linger on our hero's face far longer than you'd expect (especially since the movie isn't in 3D), but once we reach the town, populated by its bevy of creature, your eyes become very much in danger of jumping right out of your skull.

There's a kind of tactile richness that permeates every frame, along with beautiful, naturalistic sequences (Roger Deakins advised the production) that bring to mind everyone from Hayao Miyazaki to Terrence Malick (along with the easier-to-spot odes to Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone). ILM does a killer job of creating both characters and environments that feel 100% authentic, even if they are peppered with a kind of sweet surrealism. In one memorable dream sequence, Rango imagines himself in a stark white background, menaced by cacti that turn into rattlesnake rattles. It's startling, invigorating stuff.

But back to the story (written, incidentally, by John Logan, who has been responsible for everything from "Gladiator" to "Star Trek: Nemesis"): The mayor of Dirt, a wheelchair-bound tortoise (Ned Beatty), seizes upon the townspeople's enthusiasm for the supposed gunslinger and makes Rango the town's sheriff, a role he's more than happy to accept, given how sleepy the town is. What Rango doesn't realize, of course, is that there's a vast, "Chinatown"-like conspiracy afoot with the town's water, and he'll have to become an actual hero if he wants to save the day and get the girl (Beans, a desert iguana played by Isla Fisher).

What makes "Rango" such a blast is the seriousness with which Verbinski takes the western conceit – there isn't a whole lot of winking and nodding, but actual, threatening cowboy stuff is in abundance. There are references, for sure, but they're handled wittily and are wonderfully not of-the-moment – during one thrilling action sequence, wherein our heroes are menaced by bandits riding bats, there somehow manages to be a gag that tips its hat to both "Apocalypse Now" and "Deliverance" in the same moment. That's when we wanted to stand up and applaud the gutsy go-for-broke-ness of the movie. (Even if the little kids in our screening were noticeably freaked out.)

The main complaint that will undoubtedly be leveled at the film is that it doesn't have a whole lot of "heart." This isn't "Toy Story 3" or even "How to Train Your Dragon" in terms of emotional involvement. It's a visual feast, for sure, and an exciting, sometimes hilarious adventure, but there isn't anything that will give you a lump in your throat. But the movie can never be classified as "cold." "Rango" is certainly cerebral, with large, dialogue-free stretches in which our hero simply ponders the nature of his existence, but it never feels like an intellectual exercise. It's too jaunty and exciting and feisty to ever become self-involved or distancing; you're sucked in from the beginning and are rarely given the opportunity to let go.

Verbinski, working in the same bizarro wheelhouse as bits of the third 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie (specifically the earlier sequences set in the nether-realm), brings a wit and verve to the movie that cannot be contained. Maybe it's the fearlessness of it being his first animated film, coupled with the exhilaration of being able to work with Industrial Light & Magic on a full-length movie (their work is nothing short of magnificent), but it really does genuinely feel like something new. It's easily the strangest large-scale animated movie since Wes Anderson's stop motion gem "Fantastic Mr. Fox," and probably even weirder. It's funny that a meta-western about what identity means to a creature supposed to genetically blend in anywhere, stands so boldly apart from the crowd. [B+]

This article is related to: Films, Actors, Actresses, Composers, Film Studios, Review, Gore Verbinski, Animated Films, Bill Nighy, Isla Fisher, Hans Zimmer, GK Films, Paramount, Rango


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


E-Mail Updates