If you’re a fan—preferably an old fan—of Western movies, then “Rango” is made for you, pardner. Advertised as a kids movie and rated “PG,” this is decidedly aimed at adults, in terms of both tone and content. Also, it has plenty of scary moments, such as the appearance of a gun-toting giant rattlesnake from Hell, which might dilute the pleasure of the younger fry, as well as cinematic references which will sail over their little heads.
That said, this is a delightful, artful animated feature, beautifully crafted by the folks at Industrial Light and Magic. It’s just great to watch: individual characters’ faces, limbs, even their skin is rendered with a precision that shows how far computer generated graphics have advanced in recent years. Background details are consistently mined for extra humor, and perspective is handled with wit and care.
All this work is in the service of a movie that follows the form and formulas of the classic Western, perhaps the distinctive American film genre. But it does so in order to have fun with the type. We’re tipped to this in the opening credits, which employ the images and music we’ve come to expect—then undercuts them with a mariachi quartet of little birds who tell us we’re going to see the “life and death of a great legend,” a promise that the ensuing action doesn’t quite deliver on.
The hero, of sorts, is a chameleon, voiced in a tour de force by the equally mercurial Johnny Depp. The little guy has been sharing an aquarium with a mechanical toy fish and a headless doll torso and longing for a larger stage upon which to strut his stuff. He gets his wish when his home is thrown from a car and he is cast adrift in the desert. A prophetic armadillo named Roadkill (Alfred Molina) advises him to seek his fortune—and his Self—in a little town called Dirt.
So off he sets, the bird band relating the archetypal significance of his existential quest at various stages. Along the way he accidentally (and hilariously) bests a fearsome hawk, sheds several layers of scales, and meets the fetching but disdainful orphan lizard Bean (Isla Fisher), who gives him a ride to the edge of town. The aptly-named Dirt looks like the stage set for a movie, except that the buildings are somewhat, uh, eccentric. The post office is a mail box, and other structures also comically demonstrate that form follows function.
The townspeople are also a hoot: when Rango walks into a saloon, it brings to mind the alien bar scene in the first “Star Wars.” The Dirtizens are ruled by a dictatorial mayor (Ned Beatty), an old turtle who is hoarding and secretly dumping the town’s water supply in an effort to get people to move out so he can buy their land on the cheap. It wouldn’t be fair to tell you why, but here’s a hint: think “Chinatown.” You can also catch echoes of Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, “Apocalypse Now,” “High Noon,” and any number of other classics.
In fact, the ideal audience for “Rango” may be movie critics and others who have wasted far too much of their lives in the darkness (present company excepted, of course). People who get the in-jokes will be constantly giggling; others, not so much. And parents should guide their children pretty carefully, especially if they don’t like snakes.