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With: (voices) Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, Ray Winstone, Ian Abercrombie, James Ward Byrkit, Claudia Black, Blake Clark, Charles Fleischer, Gil Birmingham
Written by: John Logan, based on a story by John Logan, Gore Verbinski, James Ward Byrkit
Directed by: Gore Verbinski
MPAA Rating: PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking
Running Time: 107
Date: 14/02/2011

Rango (2011)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Ride the Dry Country

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Who would have thought that Gore Verbinski had it in him? He'd pretty much lost me with his bloated, unnecessary sequels Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and At World's End. But thinking back, aren't there some terrifically wicked moments in The Weather Man? And isn't the original Pirates of the Caribbean a surprisingly agile summer blockbuster? And doesn't The Mexican have some elements of a dusty Western?

Yet none of this stuff prepares us for Rango, Verbinski's first foray into animated filmmaking, and -- frankly -- the best animated film I've seen since Coraline (and yes, that includes the Pixar films). To start with, Verbinski gathered together his cast and shot the entire film on video, on a stage, over the course of a week or so. Most animated films record the cast members one at a time, and the actors never meet. As a result, Rango has a more organic connection between its characters.

But beyond that, Rango isn't interested in being cute, or in marketing toys. These characters are ugly. They're hideous, gnarled, grizzled, twisted, broken, repulsive, and sometimes scary. This is like a movie adapted from the darkest corners of Charles Addams or Edward Gorey's minds. (The only cute character is the big-eyed cactus mouse, Priscilla, voiced by Abigail Breslin.)

Rango is a Western, more or less. It's a modern-day story in which a civilized chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) accidentally finds himself in a dusty, rural town, name of "Dirt." This chameleon fancies himself an actor, and so before the town does him in, he launches into his newest creation, Rango, a legendary gunfighter and hero of the sagebrush. He fast-talks the townspeople and becomes their guardian. Their trouble? Not enough water. That, plus there is some kind of sinister behind-the-scenes doings that Rango will eventually uncover.

Let's consider the movie's dialogue, which is so gorgeous to the ear, so rapid-fire, and so endlessly hilarious that I simply can't wait to see it again. It's in love with words, with the sound of them, and with the way they roll off the tongue. As a well-written Western, it goes hand-in-hand with Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit. (If I were to program a double-feature arguing for the return of the Western genre, that would be it.) The lone credited screenwriter is John Logan, which I find astonishing. Logan is the author of such leaden, boring movies as Gladiator, The Time Machine, Star Trek: Nemesis, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and The Last Samurai. I submit that it's implausible for him to have written this (unless Logan made his own pilgrimage to the desert to discover his true self). This leaves either some uncredited re-writing, or else some spirited improvisation, led by Depp and taken up by his fellow cast and crew.

However, Rango gets by on more than dialogue. It begins in a small universe that soon explodes into a much bigger one. The animation is so superior and imaginative that Pixar should be quaking in their collective boots. The action is fast and smooth, with an astonishing use of three-dimensional space. Consider one scene in which Rango hides from a nasty predator bird inside a discarded bottle. He begins to run, treadmill-like, causing the bottle to clatter across the desert. Verbinski shows us a shot from inside the moving bottle, catching a view of the sky and ground through the imperfect glass, and it's quite simply unlike any other shot you've ever seen.

Aside from all this, Rango becomes a personal movie, though more for Depp than for Verbinksi. The Rango character fits in perfectly with Depp's onscreen persona; he's a little bit Ed Wood, a little bit Jack Sparrow, a little bit Willy Wonka, and a little bit Raoul Duke (the movie includes a visual reference to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which lets you know just how bizarre it really is). He's an actor, looking for his place in the world, and comfortable only when playing a role. Besides his fairly standard adventure defeating the bad guys and finding the water, Rango is on a spiritual quest, which culminates in a visit from the Spirit of the West (a moment better seen than described). This moves the already superior Rango up another notch.

Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Rango is aware of a world of movies, and mostly grown-up movies. They include Chinatown, the Pirates movies, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and any number of great-to-anonymous Westerns. The Western hero is usually a man of few words, confident, alone, and certainly comfortable in his identity. Rango is the opposite; he's a blabbermouth, and he has no identity, and he has more ego than he does confidence. But the tropes of the Western help him to learn who he really is.

I could go on raving, but I'll stop here and mention some of the rest of the talented voice cast: Isla Fisher as "Beans," Rango's love interest; Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, and Ray Winstone. Picture these guys in hats, kicking the dust from their boots and pushing the saloon doors aside, and you get the idea. I'll sum up by saying that Rango has taken the animated film beyond its all-too-confining marketing restraints and has given us something for grown-ups and movie buffs. It's a treasure that I eagerly await revisiting.

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