I wasn’t that interested in Rango when I first took my kids to see it. The previews made me think it was a weird western starring a weird lizard surrounded by a bunch of weird creatures. I was wrong. Rango is all of those things, it’s true, but it is also so much more.
Johnny Depp voices Rango, a lonely lizard who is thrown from his terrarium into a thirsty town called Dirt. The place is right out of a spaghetti western. Rango is a chameleon, after all, so to fit in he tells a tall tale at the local saloon and is quickly hired to be the new sheriff. As a Greek chorus of Mariachi owls sings about Rango’s inevitable death, Rango sets out to discover why the townsfolk are running out of water.
A lot of animated features are little more than slick puppet shows with talking animals, zip-bang visuals and as many jokes-per-minute as possible. The better to entertain your kids with. Rango has that, but it takes a more unconventional approach. It has a trippy, existential quality – part David Lynch, part Hunter S. Thompson – that young kids will entirely miss. At the beginning, Rango discusses life, destiny and the quest to cross the road with an armadillo voiced by Alfred Molina. The armadillo, by the way, has been half-squashed by a car.
Pixar films walk a careful line, offering consistent stories that are funny and approachable to both adults and children. Rango is rated PG, but it leans more toward the adult side of that line. I appreciated that the film didn’t dumb itself down. Rango isn’t just a colorful distraction, it’s for people who enjoy movies. Viewers will smile at the nods to Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Blazing Saddles, Star Wars and more.
And kids will still get a kick out of the splendid animation, silly characters and action sequences. There is so much witty activity to see that they won’t care if they don’t fully understand what’s going on. When my friend asked his 5 year-old what the movie was actually about, she shouted, “Rango!” So there you go.
Speaking of the animation, this is the first animated feature from Industrial Light & Magic and they give Pixar and Dreamworks a run for their money. The characters are dirty and peculiar looking, with a blind mole, a gross frog and a rabbit with matted fur and a missing ear. ILM didn’t go out of its way to “cutesify” every player in this western so they could be lined up on a toy shelf. In addition to the good and the bad, they give us the ugly. The result is an entertaining array of vivid and amazingly voiced characters. And when the villain Rattlesnake Jake finally appears, voiced by Bill Nighy, he is such a perfectly realized presence on screen – all sound and slither and a ratcheting gun for a tail – that I found I was holding my breath.
Another way that Rango eschews the norm – it’s in 2D. You’re going to pay the regular price for a ticket and not three bucks more for a pair of 3D glasses and a headache. And when the movie starts and you find yourself caught up in the clever story and marveling at the animation, you won’t care one bit that you’re not watching it in 3D.
This movie is a gem. Entertaining and pleasantly unconventional. See it.