by Tony Dayoub
You know what's the best feeling for a moviegoer? Going to the multiplex with average to low expectations about a movie only to be greatly surprised by how much you enjoyed it.
Though the buzz was starting to get around that the animated western Rango was the first great film of 2011, I still went into it with some trepidation. Animated movies seem to touch the heart of even the most stone-faced critics who often seem to give such pictures a pass simply for displaying a modicum of visual originality (I'm thinking of such mediocrity as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Despicable Me, Megamind, etc.).
But with a glut of animation beginning to hit theaters as each studio tries to get into the game, it is harder and harder to predict which will be memorable and which won't be. I'm happy to report Rango exceeds expectations.
Rango sets its unique tone with its opening scene in which a nameless pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) is separated from its owner during a surreal episode on a busy highway. The chameleon soon finds his way to a drought-plagued desert town called Dirt. T
he chameleon names himself Rango, perpetuating the fraudulent persona of lethal outlaw to the quirky denizens of the western town including a lizard love interest named Beans (Isla Fisher)—whose paralytic defense mechanism kicks in at the most inopportune moments—and the conniving mayor, Tortoise John (Ned Beatty).
Utilizing the familiar tropes of the "spaghetti western" genre to tell its story, the richly textured Rango is actually a reworking of Chinatown (1974). Like in that Roman Polanski film noir, the central plot involving the siphoning of a rural water supply by a land developer is simply an excuse to address questions of identity.
Rango asks, "Who am I?" at least 3 times in the film. Each time the answer becomes more difficult to discern. Is he mythic hero, raconteur, or simply a cipher passing through (recalling Sterling Hayden's line from Johnny Guitar "I'm a stranger here myself."). Odd, surrealist interludes offer little help in answering the question, even an inspired one in which Rango speaks to the Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant)—as perceived in the likeness of a certain Oscar-winning actor-director.
Curiously Rango succeeds because many of the questions it poses linger in the ether far longer than most kids films would allow. This extension of mood is also a result of Industrial Light and Magic's expert attention to the film's sense of place, whether on the highway, in the desert, in the town of Dirt, or in the hero's head-space.
The danger in mishandling the execution of a dense project like Rango would be in making it so atmospheric, referential, and obtuse that only adults get it. And believe me, with references to Sergio Leone, Salvador Dalí, and even a blink-and-you'll-miss-it wink at Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), there's plenty for parents to chew on that will fly straight over their little ones' heads. Midway through Rango, one action sequence involving an aerial attack in a canyon (too similar to ILM's podrace sequence in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace) is too much of a good thing, almost threatening to stop the film cold. But save for that one scene, the film is surprisingly focused.
Children get it. They may not get all the obscure tangential paths Rango takes. But they understand the experience. This is the only time I remember watching a kids' film at a packed 11 a.m. screening on a Saturday morning and hearing... silence. Not one child made a peep for most of the film. They hadn't fallen asleep. They weren't fidgeting. They were watching Rango with mouths agape... as you will be.