Rango (2011): United States – directed by Gore Verbinski

Rated PG by the MPAA – contains violent content, dark themes, some mild language and rude humor

Some American audiences feel that all animated films fall into one of two camps; either the disrespectful, slightly adult comedy of Dreamworks Animation (How to Train Your Dragon [review here] being an exception) or the heartfelt mastery of Pixar films.  But Rango is enjoyable precisely because it aims for something totally different, and ends up feeling like neither type of film.  Rango’s young adult flavor, mixing some violence with dark themes and quirky, offbeat humor, may not be for the younger kids but is a refreshing addition to the genre.

And what animation: Rango may be the most detailed, gorgeous animated film I have ever seen.  There are moments that are pure bliss, with such an atmosphere as few other animated films have ever managed.  The film is essentially a Western mixed with Chinatown that manages to discuss Eastern mysticism mixed with classic American movie tropes.  Add in a blend of Johnny Depp/Gore Verbinski quirkiness and comedy, and the result proves rather enjoyable.

The film starts with a little chameleon acting out a scene from his most recent script.  His companions are noticeably more lifeless than he, and it is soon revealed that he is in a terrarium.  Thanks to a quirk of fate he ends up stranded in the desert, all on his own.  On his own except for an aardvark attempting to get to the other side, that is.  The chameleon receives some vague advice from the aardvark and is told to wander into the desert in search of dirt, which will lead him to water.

After some struggles he finds himself in the town of Dirt, which has no water.  He runs across a cast of odd characters, including Beans (voice of Isla Fisher) and a small mole-like creature named Priscilla (Abigail Breslin).  The mayor is kindly and old, a disabled turtle (Ned Beatty) worried about the fate of his town.  There is no water, and the bank’s reserves (water in this town is essentially currency) are running dry.  Worst of all, the normally-reliable source of the water has stopped producing.

The chameleon stumbles about, wildly out of place in this small western town.  It isn’t until a moment in a bar that he decides to become Rango (Depp), a ruthless lizard of the West who has practically met with the Spirit of the West himself.  He soon finds himself becoming the hero that the little town needs, though he realizes he has been acting the entire time.

The most immediately noticeable quality of the film is the superb animation.  It is impeccable and incredibly detailed.  Rango’s eyes dart different directions, and are different sizes.  Dust effects obscure parts of scenes to dramatic effect.  The aforementioned bar scene is dark and moody, and the hairs on each odd critter are individualized and yet blend together to form an even more impressive whole.  This atmosphere pervades the entire film, and makes it an immersive experience even as the story fails to be quite as ambitious.

While the overall story is standard Chinatown-style water-in-the-desert struggle, mixed with bits of Star Wars (and, by extension, a large number of old Westerns and samurai films), the small details are enjoyable.  There’s a reference to another trippy Johnny Depp flick, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  There are nods to the king of the spaghetti Western, Clint himself.  There are otherworldly dream sequences and grand scenes of adventure that feel very similar in tone to Pirates of the Caribbean (no surprise there given that Verbinski also directed Pirates).  There are a number of fearsome villains, primarily Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), a terrible creature with a chain gun instead of a rattle.

And there’s Rango, in the center, he of the existential questions that drive him crazy.  The film brings up questions of identity in a post-modern context, but doesn’t lean too heavily on these themes.  There are plenty of large set pieces that entertain, and the film rarely drags even though it could be slightly shorter.  It is quite violent, and rather dark for a PG-rated film, more akin to some of the serious adult-oriented animated films of Ralph Bakshi (a la Wizards and The Lord of the Rings, not Fritz the Cat).  It is not for young kids, but a range of audiences from middle-schoolers to young adults will find a great deal to appreciate in Rango, a worthy and creative alternative to both Pixar and Dreamworks.

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