Ten Word or Less Review: Leapin’ lizard equally amazes and disappoints.
Some of Rango ranks as the best animated movie next to Pixar output. It’s unapologetically weird and unusually adult in places. It forsakes the usual cartoonish, round faces and surfaces which has made CGI animated movies less an art form and more an interchangeable collection of characters who could cross pollinate each others stories without notice. It’s loaded with movie references and in jokes no one under the age of 8 would ever understand. Unless your 8 year old has seen Chinatown, Clint Eastwood westerns or Apocalypse Now. It’s also burdened with an over-developed plot which, as soon as you think you might we watching the first completely surrealistic $100 million cartoon, kicks in and drags the movie to an unfavorably run of the mill place from which it has trouble escaping.
Johnny Depp is the lizard with an existential crisis who becomes Rango. Before being thrust into the plot that gets in the way too much, he’s seen as a theatrical sort, performing plays in his aquarium with his friends: the headless, one armed barbie doll torso, a wind up fish toy and a plastic palm tree. At the cusp of a serious identity crisis his home is thrown from the back of a moving car. It crashes onto the highway leaving our lizard stranded in the desert with only an spiritual minded, and run over, armadillo as help. The lizard follows the directions of the armadillo and makes his way to the aptly named town of Dirt, a barren collection of old buildings about to fall over and blow away right out of Western Cinema 101. The town’s water is vanishing under its feet and its grizzled citizens are helpless. Our lizard hero sees his opportunity and seizes it. Quickly spinning tales of macho bravado he names himself Rango, the hero the town needs to solve its crisis and return prosperity. Hopefully no one will notice he’s a hopeless idiot more likely to get everyone killed .
Rango’s style and sense of humor isolate from the rest of the CGI kids movie pack. Instead of the usual collection of featureless, round faces we usually get in CGI kids movies, Rango is populated with grizzled critters who look lively and lived in. They are very much a collection of Western archetypes with the looks to prove it. The movie also, while favoring a few juvenile jokes, aims for some odd places. Depp’s Rango is a blending of his Hunter S. Thompson persona and Jack Sparrow. As a live action performance it would probably have been awful to watch, but hidden under the shifting skin of a chameleon with a pencil neck and big head it works well.
Where Rango trips itself up is the story department. It works so well when it tries to be different that it’s more predictable elements are all the more tiresome. For every Clint Eastwood populated fever dream or Lee Van Cleef inspired rattlesnake with a machine gun instead of a rattle, there’s loads of transparent plot to deal with. Everyone will see where Rango is going quite easily so the prolonged nature of the story is flummoxing. Had director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) been less adamant about filling out his story so traditionally, Rango could’ve scurried along just fine leaving audiences wildly amused. Instead it’s bounces between being inspiring and dull in equal measure. Rango is also PG and really flirting with PG-13. If you gots little ones this may be a bit much. The Bill Nighy voiced Rattlesnake Jake will probably scare them senseless. So take them twice!
Considering what the average, non-Pixar, animated movie is like, bland and annoying, we should consider Rango a wild success despite itself. It may not fire on all levels but the parts that do work so well that dismissing it for its shortcomings would be a grievous mistake. Imperfections and all it’s an odd angled animated confection that will probably grow in esteem over time.