With the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking. 107 minutes.
RANGO is a delightful bit of silliness that works as a heartfelt tribute to westerns as well as a goofy cartoon adventure featuring lizards, snakes and bats battling over a desert town. It’s a one-of-a-kind film that could have faltered in numerous places and yet somehow hangs together and works. Best of all? It’s not in 3D.
Rango (voice of Johnny Depp) is someone’s pet lizard (who is dressed like gonzo icon Hunter S. Thompson, who Depp played in “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas”) who falls off the truck on a desert highway and suddenly finds himself on his own. A hideously run-over armadillo (Alfred Molina) manages to direct him and a mariachi band of owls to the town of Dirt, which is failing due to a lack of water. The mayor (Ned Beatty) appoints him marshal after he inadvertently kills a dangerous hawk, but there’s something wrong in Dirt, and Rango is going to get to the bottom of it.
On one level, this plays like an old-fashioned western with the townspeople being taken advantage of by greedy special interests. It’s not clear why a 19th century town of reptiles exists in the 21st century desert, but that’s not a question you should be asking. Instead, we’re concerned whether the feisty Beans (Isla Fisher) is going to shoot Rango or prove to be the romantic interest. As the reluctant hero, Rango finds he has to rise to occasion and stand up not only to the villains, but to the townspeople who have lost their faith in him. John Logan’s screenplay is driven by character, not pop culture references.
Most of the voice cast is unexpected (although Bill Nighy, who voices Rattlesnake Jake, is a veteran of this) and they play their roles to perfection. Timothy Olyphant, who cut his teeth as Sheriff Seth Bullock in HBO’s “Deadwood,” turns up as the Spirit of the West, and if you look and seem to hear Clint Eastwood in his performance you won’t be mistaken. The film owes much not only to Eastwood’s westerns, but to his “spaghetti westerns” for Sergio Leone. Composer Hans Zimmer seems to be channeling Leone’s longtime composer Ennio Morricone here.
One concern for parents taking children is the language and violence. There’s several “hells” and “damns” and while the roadkill may be the most graphic victim of violence, the shootout between a gang of robbers on bats and the good guys is an extended sequence. The rating lists it as “action” but it is pretty intense for this kind of cartoon. That’s mentioned less as a criticism – it fits the story being told – and more as a heads-up to parents of very young or sensitive children for whom this may be an issue.
At this year’s Oscars, “Toy Story 3” won a well-deserved Best Animated Feature award for Pixar, but this year’s Pixar offering is “Cars 2,” a follow-up to their disappointing, albeit hugely financially successful, “Cars.” There may well be an opportunity for a solid competitor at next year’s awards, and while it’s too soon to judge the field – with nearly ten months of releases to go – “Rango” could well be a contender.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.