Movie Review: Rango
By Matthew Huntley
March 16, 2011

It's like Firefly for geckos!

Of all movies, Rango has a lot in common with Chinatown. That’s right: Chinatown. This is probably something you never expected to read (just as I didn’t expect to write it). Chinatown (1974) is Roman Polanski’s classic film noir about a private eye lured into a world of deception, greed and incest. Rango, on the other hand, is an animated feature directed by Gore Verbinski about a plucky little lizard trying to form his own identity. Oh, and he happens to have a knack for theatrics (watch him as he puts on a play for the inanimate objects in his glass tank).

Rango is neither a rip-off of Chinatown nor an homage. It simply illustrates how two movies with similar plots can co-exist on opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum yet still remain comparable on a quality level. It’s a high compliment to Rango that it’s every bit as memorable as Chinatown, even though each movie is meant for an entirely different audience. When the kids who are now seeing Rango eventually see Chinatown, they’ll pick up on the likenesses and be able to appreciate them. Robert Towne, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Chinatown, should feel honored that Rango-writer John Logan utilized his plot and made it just as lively in a family-friendly capacity.

When the story opens, Rango doesn’t have a name. He comes up with his moniker while improvising a background story for the locals in a little town called Dirt, which exists somewhere in the vast desert outside Las Vegas and has all the qualities of a classic Hollywood Western. It even comes with its own saloon, where the bartender serves cactus juice. The town’s inhabitants are comprised of various amphibians and reptiles, along with three mariachi owls narrating the story.

The characters in Rango occupy a world separate from and unknown by humans, but they talk and act just the same. Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp), presumably a family pet, happens upon Dirt when his glass tank falls out of his owner’s car. On the scorching desert highway, he’s greeted by a sage-like armadillo (Alfred Molina), who tells him if he just keeps walking across the street and beyond, he’ll find answers.

In between dodging hawks and scrounging for moisture, Rango meets Beans (Isla Fisher), a fellow lizard who has the same tenacity and stubbornness as the heroine from True Grit. Aside from sometimes stiffening up uncontrollably, Beans is always giving others the what for and stating her cause to save her father’s farm.

Like the rest of Dirt’s citizens, Beans is waiting for water. There’s currently a limited supply and every Wednesday she and the other townspeople gather for a ritual dance and hope when the mayor (Ned Beatty) turns the spigot, water will come gushing out. But the water has stopped coming and now someone has suddenly stolen all the reserves from the bank. Since Rango has gone out of his way to tell everyone he’s a legendary hero, one who’s capable of killing seven men with one bullet, he’s deemed the new sheriff and he makes it his mission to find the missing water and, hopefully, his true self.

If you’re familiar with Chinatown, then perhaps you've already begun connecting the dots for how Rango will turn out. But the plot is mostly a springboard for the movie’s real magic and appeal, which come from its heart, design and characterizations. This is one of the best looking computer animations ever and that’s saying a lot since Disney and DreamWorks have set the bar so high. The images, both in the long shots and close-ups, are so rich and detailed they’re almost tangible, most noticeably on the animals’ skin and fur. Yet they’re not exactly realistic; they have their own style that feels specific to this world. They’re mesmerizing and beauteous.

But the movie would be but a mere a technical exercise if it wasn’t also for its inventive story and energetic performances. I sometimes wonder if an Oscar will ever be rewarded to an actor for lending his or her voice to an animated character. If that ever becomes a reality, people will surely look back and say Robin Williams and Jack Black deserved one for voicing the Genie in Aladdin and Po in Kung Fu Panda. And now the list includes Johnny Depp, who’s pitch perfect as Rango, so sprightly and animated (and not just literally, but in his enthusiasm and audacity).

Through his voice, we sense Depp's trademark versatility at work and he conveys just the right zest, emotion, courage, fear and uncertainty. Credit to the animators for capturing Depp’s antics and personality and for allowing us to see he’s not just speaking - he’s actually acting. And what’s more impressive is he distinguishes this role from his live-action one. I know, you may be thinking that’s easy since he’s not physically on-screen and he's simply providing the voice to an animated lizard, but I’ve seen footage of Depp on the set of Rango, where he's in full costume. He really became Rango.

The movie also has a sophistication to it that’s sometimes lacking from other animated features. This is a family picture, yes (and a great one at that), but it seems geared more toward adults. It’s not afraid to use curse words or suggest violence. It also doesn’t patronize the audience. Its humor is focused and the filmmakers assume the audience is smart and experienced enough to get the jokes. And if kids don’t get them, they’ll ask their parents (an example might be from my favorite joke in the movie, which involves the word “mammogram”).

Rango is the manifestation of charming and imaginative, an animated feature whose look is every bit as impressive as its characterizations. It reminds us one of the reasons we go to movies, particularly animated ones, is to slip into worlds that make us laugh, feel silly and entertain us. Rango creates such a world and we bask in it.