(by Dustin Putman
Big-screen computer animation hasn't for quite some time looked as gorgeous, detailed, and bursting with vitality as it does in "Rango"—certainly not since the tedious, overused onslaught of 3-D in multiplexes. The question, then, is whether there is a correlation between this picture's lovely theatrical presentation and the fact that it is the first mainstream animated feature in over two years to not be released in that brightness-draining, color-dulling three dimensional fad format. It's a safe bet that there is. Sparked by inspired vocal performances, an involving story, and thoroughly witty humor that refuses to talk down to anyone, "Rango" is a glorious and affectionate little spoof-cum-ode to Sergio Leone-inspired travails of the spaghetti-enthused Wild West genre. Children should be delighted, for sure, but this is one case where adults will be able to more widely appreciate it and get more out of all the diverse references and sophisticated themes. Article continues below
A pet chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) who fancies himself a thespian idles away his hours in a terrarium, performing skits with the remnants of a headless plastic doll and palm tree. When his owner's car narrowly dodges the path of a tractor trailer, his glass case is flung from the backseat, shattering across the steamy desert-located asphalt. Suddenly unleashed into the outside world for the first time, the lizard takes the advice of a half-splattered armadillo (Alfred Molina) and journeys across the sands until he meets the feisty, headstrong Beans (Isla Fisher), an iguana struggling to save her dead daddy's ranch from being sold. Her hometown of Dirt, a bone-dry remnant of the past, is currently having a serious water shortage problem. The lizard, seeing this as his chance to play one of the fictional roles he's only ever acted for himself, sweeps in and posits himself as a tough, seasoned, gun-toting lawman. Calling himself Rango—he gets the name from the words on the side of a cactus juice container—he quickly takes on the role of Dirt's new sheriff without really knowing the first thing about running a town. As he struggles to keep up the charade, he is soon front and center in an investigation to find out who is behind a dwindling water supply that, if not corrected, could spell extinction for the critter residents.
Directed by Gore Verbinski (2007's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End") and written by John Logan (2007's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"), "Rango" is almost ridiculously fun, especially in its first half. A Greek chorus of mariachi band owls pop up on occasion to narrate the tale of a hero who they forewarn will die at the end. Since the film isn't exactly a drama, though, don't take their words too literally. With the viewer journeying along with Rango after he is abruptly torn from his glass-encased home, there is an instant and enduring sense of wonder and discovery similar to Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Each new personality he meets, each new place he travels, and each new sticky situation he must get out of keeps the pacing fast and the entertainment value high. There's an ingenious example of foreshadowing in the cameo from Johnny Depp playing Hunter S. Thompson in 1998's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" that pays off by the end, a thrilling escape from the dangers of crossing a highway, and a deliciously funny run-in at Dirt's local saloon with townspeople who laugh when Rango asks for a glass of water. A sight gag involving the blazing heat of the desert and Rango's propensity for shedding his skin is a hoot, and so, too, are the respective introductions of two scene-stealing supporting characters, the scrappy, rootin'-tootin' Beans and tell-it-like-it-is young cactus mouse Priscilla (Abigail Breslin).
Once Rango has gotten settled in Dirt and happened upon dumb luck in getting the other people to trust him—whenever he is at a loss for what to do next, he valiantly announces, "We ride!" then races on horseback through the desert with nowhere specific to go—the momentum does admittedly flag by a notch or two. Having already met the ensemble by this point and without a memorable villain on hand until the third act, the humor loses some of its sharpness and the necessities of the plot take over. It's also too bad that Beans isn't utilized as fully as she might have been; hers is, without a doubt, one of the most lovably quirky animated characters in recent memory. Beans has a slangy, yet straightforward, way of doing business and a tic where she freezes like a stone whenever she gets the least bit uncomfortable. She's certainly offbeat, but she's also a bright and funny romantic interest for Rango. As the titular lizard gets to the bottom of the water quandary, the picture finishes strong with a battle set-piece with the imposing Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), an explosive resolution, and a gently earnest comment on the struggle between retaining the values of the old world while opening one's mind to the new ideas of modern civilization.
Granted, it's only March, but "Rango" is sure to go down as the only family film this year with an appearance from Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name and a punchline involving Kim Novak. By thinking outside the box, director Gore Verbinski has made a one-of-a-kind confection, maybe not as emotional as Pixar's best, but also more substantial and imaginative than the usual imitator. It's a cherry on top that the animation is stunningly rendered, the characters striking up a real sense of in-synch camaraderie thanks to a filming style that had the actors performing the scenes and interacting together as they recorded their dialogue. The vast expanses in and around the town of Dirt are nothing short of majestic, at times looking downright photorealistic. Even more than in the motion-capture process used in 2004's "The Polar Express" and 2009's "A Christmas Carol," it is easy to forget that one isn't watching live-action at all. Adopting a twangy accent in the role and a breadth of humanity and worldly wisdom, Isla Fisher (2009's "Confessions of a Shopaholic") is brilliant—a word not often used to describe a vocal performance, but worth being bandied about here. Abigail Breslin (2009's "My Sister's Keeper"), though underused, is a treat as the cute, funny-lookin' Priscilla. As for Johnny Depp (2010's "The Tourist"), this could maybe be his most winning part to date. Wry, genial, and not at all interested in jumping on the bandwagon of flash-in-the-pan pop-cultural hipness, "Rango" holds an eclectic eye for finding beauty in the unusual. Even its godsend of a stance away from 3-D goes against the grain, and the film's upshoot in quality proves all the more immersive because of it.