To the extent I have any credibility left following my recent review of Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never (by the way, did you see that it just became the highest grossing concert film in history?), let me try and poison the well completely. It matters not what your age is, Rango is simply a tremendous movie experience. It is diabolically clever, has a wickedly funny script from John Logan and is certain to be nominated as one of the year’s Best Animated Films come Oscar time next year.
Simply put, Rango is an animated movie that adults can go to sans children without the slightest fear of embarrassment. Like last year’s Oscar winning Toy Story 3 it is really an adult film that most children will love also.
While at its heart Rango is a story about the need for human connection, it is also unsparing in its naked criticism of the corrosive effects of corrupt business practices on our body politic. It remarkably succeeds as both entertainment and as a bitingly satirical Op-Ed piece as seen through the eyes of some of the most unattractive characters that you will ever likely see on the big screen.
Johnny Depp is the perfect choice to provide the voice of Rango, a lizard accidentally tossed into the desert of the Southwest after his vacationing human owners have a slight traffic mishap. Having been raised in the sheltered environment of his aquarium, Rango doesn’t have the slightest idea how to exist on his own in the real world. Wearing a florid Hawaiian shirt that intentionally resembles the Hunter Thompson character Depp played in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Rango is out of his element in every respect.
Advised by an injured armadillo known appropriately enough as Roadkill (voiced by the always wonderful Alfred Molina), he sets out across the desert to find a town known only as Dirt. Saved from the certain clutches of death at the claws of a pursuing hawk by a feisty female lizard known simply as Beans (Isla Fisher), he arrives at the desolate rodent community of Dirt to face his destiny.
For those of you who have seen the previews, you know that Rango becomes the accidental hero of the lizards and mammals forming the townspeople of Dirt when he accidentally kills the hawk that has been terrifying the community. Desperate because of the mysterious disappearance of their water supply and thus being left on the verge of being forced to sell their land and meager possessions to the local banker, [a tortoise who clearly resembles the infamous Mr. Potter in Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)], Rango becomes both their sheriff and sole remaining source of hope.
What follows is one crazed adventure after another as Rango desperately tries to save a town based on nothing more than a gaudy reputation that is the complete invention of his hyperactive imagination. Additionally, this nasty little comedy/drama is gloriously enhanced by the use of inventive references to well-known films of the past.
For example, along with the movie references referred to above, Rango faces a gunfight in the middle of a windblown street that unashamedly resembles Gary Cooper in the climax of High Noon (1952); Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), not to mention Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in The Gunfight at O.K. Corral (1957).
The story of a small town and its residents being forced to pull up stakes by a silent conspiracy where they are denied water rights is a plot pulled out of another classic film of the Old West, The Big Country (1958), which starred Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Jean Simmons.
Finally, the mythical Spirit of the West (voiced by Timothy Olyphant), a spectral figure that comes to Rango’s aid in a moment of dire need, intentionally resembles Clint Eastwood and his character known as “The Man With No Name” in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
It is important to note that all of these metaphors land as light as a feather. Furthermore, the verbal interplay between the characters is so quick and spirited that it leaves you with a feeling that you missed so much dialogue that you want to see the film again. That was exactly what my grandchildren and I said upon leaving the theater, and I can assure you that we will be going back a second time this week.
One of the things that makes Rango so lovable is its large cast of crazed characters. Isla Fisher’s Beans is a girl of strength and backbone despite her susceptibility to seizures that repeatedly cause her to freeze in place. Bill Nighy provides the sinister voice of Rattlesnake Jake, a hideous reptile that strikes terror into all of the inhabitants of Dirt, not to mention the younger members of the audience. Ned Beatty is spot on as the voice of the Mayor, the nefarious turtle who oozes insincerity and slime. Finally, Abigail Breslin’s tiny wide-eyed possum never doubts Rango no matter how transparently foolish he becomes.
Rango tells a heartfelt story about otherwise insignificant common people, in this case reptiles and mammals, who are looking for hope as they struggle to fight the daily injustices that inevitably visit everyone. What purpose is there to life if you stop believing in a better future for your family, friends and children? Rango has a heart as big as the American West that it portrays. It says more about man’s classic struggle against the limitations of the human condition than any live action movie is likely to succeed in doing this year.