By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD— “Rango” is so strange, smart and sometimes surreal that it’s tempting to say adults may enjoy it even more than the younger set will. But that may not be giving kids enough credit, judging from delighted pre-teen reactions at a pre-release screening.
Johnny Depp voices the title character, a delusional chameleon whose stir-crazy terrarium existence turns into a weird wild-west saga when he finds himself stranded on a desert highway. Depp makes the loquacious lizard not only likably loony but believably melancholy when things go wrong, giving the reluctant hero real heart.
A philosophical armadillo (Alfred Molina) points Rango to a town called Dirt populated by all manner of rodents, lizards, birds and small furry creatures, each beautifully rendered and distinctively unique. The parched populace is having water problems that will be familiar to everyone who’s seen “Chinatown,” the most obvious of many movies that “Rango” references. Ned Beatty, who voiced “Toy Story 3″‘s loathsome Lotso, gives another perfectly nasty performance here as the Noah Cross-like tortoise who is Dirt’s manipulative mayor. Before long, big-talking Rango the charlatan chameleon has been named sheriff, and has to live up to his own legend.
One of the unexpected delights of “Rango” is the artistry of its animation, which goes beyond the taken-for-granted technical craftsmanship of most CGI movies. Not only is “Rango” gorgeous, it’s full of scenes that are far more imaginative, dynamic and stylish than simple storytelling would have required. A pixel-perfect shadowy saloon, desert dunes where footfalls make tiny avalanches of sand, and a spooky cavern inhabited by something with one heck of a big eye are only three of the movie’s many memorable settings. This is the first feature animated by the George Lucas special effects house Industrial Light & Magic, and it is a stunning achievement.
Director Gore Verbinski, best known for helming the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies starring Depp, perfectly stages scenes here ranging from a dusty duel in the sun to a “Star Wars”-style aerial dogfight to a dream-like fantasy interlude. Chases are elaborately outrageous and preposterously destructive, and Verbinski’s “camera moves” within the animated image are consistently creative. This is his first animated feature, but he already has mastered the form.
The screenplay (by John Logan, from a story by Logan, Verbinski and “Pirates of the Caribbean” conceptual consultant James Ward Byrkit) features PG-rated gunplay that parents accustomed to an empty-holstered “Toy Story 3″ Woody may not expect. Although there’s no blood, the sight of bat-riding prairie dogs shooting atRango’s fleeing posse with machine guns may be too intense for toddlers. Also, the gigantic and frighteningly intimidating Rattlesnake Jake (venomously voiced by Bill Nighy) may inspire nightmares in the pre-school set.
For older kids and adults, however, the movie is a genuine treat, with nods to other films including “High Noon,” “The Road Warrior” and even Depp’s own “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Much of the high-vocabulary dialog is as offbeat as that heard in last year’s “True Grit,” full of absurd gems such as Rango revealing he is “one of the few men with a maiden name.” When robbers make off with the water supply, he proclaims that the townsfolk must “apprehend the culprits behind this aquatic conundrum.” And the leader of a mariachi band that serves as the story’s Greek chorus points out that Rango is “sinking deeper into the guacamole of his own deception.”
A surprise final-act cameo of sorts takes place in the movie’s best and most bizarre moment, one that other reviewers may not be able to resist ruining. More than any other, this is the scene that sets “Rango” apart from more traditional talking-animal outings. It’s simultaneously hilarious, sublime and even existential. Plus there’s a good lesson in there for the kiddies!
Besides beautiful animation, a genuinely funny script and terrific voice work, “Rango” has one more thing going for it: It won’t be released in 3-D, which means it will be as bright and sharp on theater screens as it deserves to be. Asked about this decision, Verbinski commented, “I watched the movie, and I don’t think there’s a dimension missing.”
He’s exactly right. “Rango” is wonderful just the way it is.
“Rango” movie trailer.