'Rango': A Long, Strange, Ingenious Trip
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Allow me to admit a prejudice: Any motion picture, animated or not, that can effectively reference "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and a Henery Hawk-starring Looney Tune, and can space those references between a mere sixty seconds or so of one another, is gonna be more than all right with me. And so it was with "Rango," a fleet, quirky, computer-animated feature that I found ingenious, charming and almost entirely engaging.
The picture is the latest collaboration between director Gore Verbinski and actor Johnny Depp, who here voices the title character, a once-domesticated chameleon who finds himself stranded in a desert town of fellow anthropomorphized critters, a motley crew simulating an Old West setting. Verbinski's cartoon-loving sensibility (one of his earliest successes was with the animated croaking frogs for those Budweiser commercials) was not entirely subsumed by the box-office juggernaut that is the Bruckheimer/Disney-concocted "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, which is wherein Verbinski made his fortune, and Depp replenished his. By comparison to said juggernaut, "Rango" may be considered a passion project, labor-of-love type of deal. For all its accomplishment, it certainly plays that way a lot.
The movie, scripted by John Logan (who wrote, among other things, Scorsese's "The Aviator," and that director's next film, the also kid-oriented "Hugo Cabret") begins with Depp's initially nameless talking chameleon directing a play for inanimate objects in the safety of his own tanks. But a traffic mishap separates the little green fellow from his human protectors. Stranded on a scorching highway, he gets some advice from a half-flattened aardvark, telling him of the "Spirit of the West"; after which he finds the drought-ridden town of Dirt, where he finds a name, a potential romance (with a female lizard named Beans, voiced by Isla Fisher, whose defense mechanism of freezing when threatened deploys itself at all sorts of awkward times), and an identity and sense of mission after his braggadocio earns him the job of sheriff.
Dirt's consuming drought gives the story line its drive, and the adult film lovers watching will pretty quickly catch on that the plot is a reasonably overt lift from the classic "Chinatown": The Ned-Beatty-voiced mayor of Dirt, a wheelchair-bound turtle, is this picture's greedy Noah Cross (John Huston) stand-in. Of course, as this is a kid's picture, the "Chinatown" lift excludes the incest and near-nihilistic fatalism and all that. Instead, it provides a useful framework in which the picture can explore the questions of belief versus ostensible reality in what turns out to be a pretty unfussy way, all the while never stinting on laughs or exciting computer-generated depictions of various fantastic desert landscapes and creatures.
Whereas the relentless pop-culture winks and nods in any number of DreamWorks animated pictures seems to have been focus-grouped to overstimulated death, "Rango" wears the genuine and personal quirkiness of its makers on its sleeve, while at the same time being pretty relaxed about the whole thing. While the film's action set pieces are indeed exhilarating and ingenious, the picture's overall vibe has an almost uncannily relaxed feel to it. While Verbinski has a background in punk rock, and Depp has been known to base characters on Keith Richards and make records with the Butthole Surfers, there are certain aspects of "Rango" that have something like a ... well ... don't tell anybody ... but a friendly-to-Deadheads-and-children-of-Deadheads vibe. The title character's early and brief encounter with a real-life figure once embodied by Mr. Depp in a much-maligned film directed by Terry Gilliam only underscores what some might call the picture's stoner appeal.
No stoner myself, I can attest that it's kind of a pleasure and relief to see an animated picture that is, in its way, as smart and cool as anything produced by Pixar, but that doesn't feel obliged to provide really BIG EMOTIONAL MOMENTS the way that Pixar films tend to. Don't get me wrong, I loved "Up" and "Toy Story 3," but I have to admit they also traumatized me. Chortling along as "Rango" loped to its satisfying climax and wrap-up, detouring into animated-art-film territory along the way, even, was as pleasant a way to spend a Saturday morning away from home as I'd care to imagine.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.