This is an odd movie. It's not just the first animated film for director Gore Verbinski, he of Pirates of the Caribbean fame, but also for Industrial Light and Magic, which is better known as one of the great SFX houses. Its first teaser trailer was exceedingly weird; followed by a full-length trailer that was more conventional, but not exactly inspiring. Then came glowing reviews from Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli and even a positive one from AV Club, which finally tipped the scale to from "run-of-the-mill animated cartoon from a non-Pixar studio" to "interesting movie I should catch". Still, the fact that it's neither a Pixar nor a DreamWorks production, nor even one helmed by anyone with any experience in animated filmmaking, left me with no idea what to expect.
It's still an odd movie. But an original and entertaining one at that.
A pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) with identity issues gets accidentally stranded in the middle of the Nevada desert. After an encounter with a spiritual pilgrim armadillo (Alfred Molina) and a hungry hawk, he comes upon the run-down desert town of Dirt, populated by a cosmopolitan community of toads, rabbits, mice, and other critters. Thinking to reinvent himself as a Wild West hero, he adopts the name Rango and spins a tall tale that the gullible townsfolk fall for easily. And when he (accidentally) kills the hawk, he is hailed as a hero and appointed sheriff by the Major (Ned Beatty) - although the rancher's daughter Beans (Isla Fisher) remains skeptical. Because what Dirt needs isn't a sheriff, it's water; the town faces a severe water crisis, made worse when a clan of hillbilly moles led by Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton) steals their last remaining water reserves. Rango sets out to save the town - but when the vicious gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) comes a'callin', he'll find his self-spun heroic reputation doesn't hold water. (And throughout the film, a band of mariachi owls foretell Rango's doom.)
Well, it's definitely not for kids, despite being a 3D-animated cartoon. The character design is your first clue; none of the characters are deliberately "cute", not even the little mouse girl voiced by Abigail Breslin, although they are all beautifully designed and characterized. Your second clue is that it's very much an homage to westerns, a genre that not a lot of kids are familiar with; it's packed with references to dozens of older films, not all of which are even westerns. (I'm told there's a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in-joke somewhere in there.) I fear for its commercial prospects - and the harried parents bringing their hyperactive kids to watch this - because I thought it was a lot of fun. For one thing, as I have previously mentioned, I like westerns.
For another, the movie is frequently hilarious. I laughed out loud a good three or four times in this; I don't know what it is about the "western" accent that makes funny dialogue funnier, but it just does. In fact, I'm pretty sure I missed a line or two, and I sorely wished it was in Digital 2D, which affords sharper picture and sound. The humour is often of a slightly more sophisticated sensibility than your average Pixar or DreamWorks effort, though there are still plenty of sight gags - and action scenes, at which Verbinski is an old hand. The standout bit is a canyon chase scene that pays homage to both the Star Wars Death Star trench run and old-fashioned western stagecoach robbery sequences. That one was a lot of fun.
It's just too bad that it's not fun all of the way. The AV Club review is right, its basic plot is terribly formulaic and predictable. And I suspect Verbinski, and his screenwriter John Logan, think their theme of identity is a lot more profound than it really is, which might explain the interminable late second act. This is most likely the point where anyone who still thinks this is a kids' cartoon would get turned off completely; it is surreal and dream-like and culminates in Rango achieving a spiritual epiphany via yet another movie reference that's gonna sail over the heads of anyone who isn't a fan of classic westerns. Oh, and there's a mystery plot (that's a takeoff on Roman Polanski's Chinatown - y'know, that children's classic) that also takes its own sweet time to unfold but doesn't turn out to be particularly clever.
Clearly, Verbinski didn't set out to make a typical family-friendly animated film. The director has rounded up a star-studded cast of character actors, and had them record their lines while acting out the scenes as if it were a live-action film, complete with props and costumes. It looks like they had a ball doing it, and it comes through in their performances. It also helps that the character design doesn't do the thing where they try to mimic the actors' features; thus folks like Isla Fisher and Bill Nighy are practically unrecognizable, and you can just focus on their voices. (And besides the ones I mentioned, there's also Ray Winstone, Stephen Root, Gil Birmingham, and a Timothy Olyphant cameo, and I'm betting you won't recognize any of 'em.)
I'm calling it now: Rango is a cult film in the making. It's too weird and idiosyncratic to make much box-office - especially if Nickelodeon Movies, of all studios, are trying to sell it to kids - but it's that same singular uniqueness that'll inspire the kind of rabid following a cult film gets. One might criticize Verbinski and Logan and co. for being self-indulgent, making what looks like a children's cartoon but most assuredly is not. And one could certainly criticize them for that slow midsection, and for taking their subtext a little too seriously. But one could also commend them for having a wildly original creative vision, sticking to it, and pulling off a movie that succeeds at entertaining just the right kind of audience. Which includes me, so that's what I'm gonna do.
NEXT REVIEW: World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles
Expectations: yes yes, the trailers were cool, but that title