Citing the need to do a smaller film after his work on the bigger-than-life Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, director Gore Verbinski managed to once again rip Johnny Depp loose from Tim Burton’s greedy grasp in the hopes of creating a slightly goofy animated Western. With its painstakingly precise animation and a giant cast of vibrant characters, the film Rango turned into anything but a “small” film, but it certainly makes for fun moviegoing.

When Rango begins, our titular character (voiced by Depp) is your run-of-the-mill pet chameleon. He whiles away his days in a glass aquarium, writing and acting in plays that star himself, 45 percent of a Barbie doll and a plastic fish. It’s a lazy lizard’s life, and it’s not too bad, until Rango’s entire aquarium is bucked from his owner’s car while traveling through the Mojave Desert, leaving Rango stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Rango meets an abdominally bisected armadillo named Roadkill (Alfred Molina), who directs Rango to begin a mystical journey of discovery. An homage to the opening “look out for the bats” scene of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas leads to a brief dust-up with Dr. Gonzo and Raoul Duke. It also lets us know that Verbinski and company are going to have some fun with this thing. Following this meta moment, and with a quartet of owl mariachis dropping in for the occasional narrative boost, Rango begins his trek across the desert, sans water, on a journey of self discovery that lands him in the tiny town of Dirt, a place with a water supply that’s diminishing as quickly as Warner Bros.’ grasp of the Charlie Sheen brouhaha.

Rango marks the first time that Industrial Light and Magic (George Lucas’s special effects company) has provided the CGI animation for a feature film, and the results are, well, magical. Visually, Rango’s characters are as highly detailed as the voice acting — not to mention the characters themselves (thanks to writer John Logan). The desert landscapes are rich and intoxicating, the fight scenes extraordinary; Pixar and Dreamworks should take note — with Rango , ILM has officially thrown its hat into the ring, and their hat is of the 10-gallon variety.

Produced by Nickelodeon Movies, Rango exists in a kind of no man’s land of animated films. The film looks like it should be kid-friendly, but much of the rapid-fire dialog will sail far over the head of your average third grader (a demographic that seemed to be heavily represented at my screening). Add to that a preoccupation with death and the occasional prostate-check joke, and most young children will probably walk out of Rango lobbying to see Mars Needs Moms .

Older viewers will appreciate Rango’s Western narrative, even if it lies somewhere between Blazing Saddles and straight-up spaghetti. The central character for Rango is not unlike a metaphor for the film itself — a pet (or pet project) turned loose in the wilds, left to fend for and invent itself.

Grade: A-


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