"A Fistful of Pixels"
"Draw!...The Gun, Not the Computer!!"
Rango is an amusing hybrid of animated feature and a rather encyclopedic mish-mash of stylized western themes, set in an animal kingdom that could only be imagined in a Ralph Steadman fever-dream. Directed by Gore Verbinski (who manages to make interesting movies from least likely sources, like The Pirates of the Caribbean*), it boasts a unique look, visually consulted by ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, while being the premiere animated feature to come out of George Lucas' FX house Industrial Light and Magic.
With such a background, the film should be technically interesting, and it is that, rich in detail and texture with a visual look unlike anything previously seen in computer animation. Everything looks real and like it should exist in a real world, even though the physics of things could never, ever work. It's a pixelated bizarro-world of funny animals just over the dunes from a mad civilization, a nightmare-world from inches off the ground.
While on a cross-country trip, a small highway accident causes a major disaster for a family's pet chameleon (with neatly quick-silver voice work by Johnny Depp)—an apt choice as he must change his persona often at times in the story—who finds himself stranded in the crushing heat of the desert, where his life of comfort leaves him ill-prepared for survival. Fortunately, he is befriended by a crusty armadillo (voiced by Alfred Molina), who seconds after meeting the lizard is run over by a truck and he's left lying prone on the asphalt with the impression of a Michelin bisecting his stomach...and he enjoins Lars (er, Rango...whatever) to go on a vision quest to face his destiny. Immediately, you know that this one is going to be a little different...not only for the kiddies, but also for producing partner Nickelodeon, which usually plays it a little safer and a little younger for its audiences.
It's something different, but also extremely familiar. I've had to gut-check this review because Rango is so stuffed to the shaded-texture sweat-band with movie references that I had to make sure geek-love didn't color my perceptions. Culled (one hesitates to say "written") by John Logan,** the story does so much reference-rustling that it feels like a pop-culture scavenger hunt—The Shakiest Gun in the West (and thus, Bob Hope's "Paleface" movies), High Noon, Shane, the Sergio Leone "spaghetti westerns," "Looney Tunes" cartoons, and a large back-wash of Chinatown. More like a tsunami, that last one, as the Mayor of the desert town of "Dirt" (clever) is a an ancient tortoise that looks, dresses, and speaks (sometimes verbatim, in the voice of Ned Beatty) like John Huston's Noah Cross from the latter.
When the chameleon drags into town, the Mayor sees an opportunity to put a patsy into the vacant Sheriff's job (there is evidently a quick turn-around in the job), which also makes the movie resemble Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, thus keeping his claws in charge of the town's water supply, or lack of it. Whatever his effectiveness in the job, one way or another "Rango" is going to be "over his head" in Dirt unless he stops concentrating on "blending in" and changes in ways more than appearance. Along the way, he is threatened by bad-guys and helped by unlikely allies in a free-wheeling roller-coaster with enough hi-jinks for the kids and enough "inside jokiness" for adults, *** done at a speed that Verbinski can't achieve in live-action films (but aspires to). This might give parents in the theater a little too much work to do, explaining things (like water-rights) while trying to deaden the "sugar-rush" the pace will give their kids. And some of the images can be a little scary for the little ones, like big snakes (modeled after Jack Palance and Lee Van Cleef) voiced by Bill Nighy (shudder).
But, it is smart, clever and different, with good performances and that extra attention to detail that shows off the best of the art-form.
Rango is a Full-Price Ticket.
* My God, I'd forgotten that he directed Mousehunt, a film I got slapstick-happy chuckles over, but that I know annoys a LOT of people. There are times when I see a bit of Mousehunt in Rango.
** Maybe I'm being a little harsh there. I liked this script by Logan and is the first of his that doesn't feel half-baked, and gives me hope that the guy might be able to bring substantial to the next Bond film, despite having replaced the more promising Peter Morgan.
*** For instance, as "Rango" is bounced around, caroming off the windshields of desert-highway traffic, he alights on one particularly relevant vehicle, and his meeting with an unnamed "Spirit of the West" (voiced so well by Timothy Olyphant that I thought the real guy had come out of his announced retirement to do it—but he's keeping true to his word with his myth-busting coda performance. Disciplined.)