Movie Review: Rango (2011)

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Johnny Depp voices the lead character in Rango
Photo: Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies

With more than subtle nods to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, a wink to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the music of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and a story line that reminds us of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Gore Verbinski’s Rango is an animated film for film lovers. Years of cinema history ooze out of this film as the Western is once again alive on the big screen. The Coens brought back the dust of the Old West to cinemas with last year’s True Grit and now Verbinski targets a whole new audience with an animated feature unlike any I can remember in recent history.

Written by John Logan (The Aviator) from a story by Logan, Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit, Rango centers on its title character as voiced by Johnny Depp, sparking immediate memories of his performance as Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Fortunately, you don’t need to know that to appreciate it. It’s just one of the many cinematic toasts Verbinski has tossed in for those paying attention.

Rango, your normal household chameleon, has found himself in a precarious situation after his glass cage was thrown from his owner’s car, landing him on the scorching pavement at the edge of the Mojave Desert. Lost, disoriented and heading into the distance paved by hot sand on the advice of a roadkill armadillo voiced by Alfred Molina, Rango sets off in search of Dirt, an aptly named varmint city facing troubles of its own.

Rendered with almost lifelike clarity by the visual wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, working on their very first feature animated film, Rango is loaded with a variety of characters, many of which I was at a loss when trying to figure out just what kind of animals, reptiles, amphibians, etc. they were. But no matter, a guess is as good as formal knowledge in this case.

There’s Ned Beatty’s voice as the shell-back Mayor, Bill Nighy as the slithery Rattlesnake Jake, Alex Manugian is a blast as Spoons, Isla Fisher’s voice was unrecognizable to me as Beans as was Abigail Breslin’s as Priscilla. My favorite, however, was the horned toad lizard Waffles voiced by the film’s co-story creator James Ward Byrkit, who brought something of a Peter Lorre affectation to his character, making his dim-witted dialogue all the more enjoyable.

The voice talent doesn’t end there, but there are far too many to mention here and some I don’t even want to bring up to avoid spoiling the fun. However, I must add that Timothy Olyphant’s contributions are worth the price of admission alone… At least for those excited by my opening sentence.

Those of you that may not be as impressed are readers that didn’t find my opening paragraph all that enticing, and I’m not sure how children will react to this film either as it is very much a traditional Western. I can say, however, that when one character met his demise during my screening a young girl, that couldn’t have been any older than seven, could be heard cheering, “Yay!” sending my screening audience into an uproar. So perhaps kids too will be able to get in on the fun.

To that end I’m curious to see how well this film does. If two Westerns in a row can ignite the box-office perhaps we will be able to look forward to more in the future, that is outside of Quentin Tarantino’s already rumored spaghetti western. I, for one, am hoping for a major hit at the box-office with this one as the tales of the Wild West have also piqued my interest.

GRADE: B+

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Weekend: Oct. 17, 2019, Oct. 20, 2019

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