RANGO – movie review

Published March 24, 2011

When it was first announced that director Gore Verbinski (The Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3) was going to follow up that gargantuanly successful trilogy by directing an animated feature, many filmgoers let out a simultaneous “Huh?”

I, however, found this news to be a natural fit, simply because I am a big fan of Verbinski’s 1997 kid’s film Mouse Hunt.  Starring Nathan Lane, Christopher Walken, and an adorably elusive rodent, Mouse Hunt played like a 98-minute, live-action Chuck Jones cartoon, heavy on laughs and Rube Goldberg gags.  With that one feature, Verbinski proved himself a natural at tackling this tricky genre, and so my expectations were quite high when I recently walked into my local theater for a screening of Verbinski’s first fully animated movie, RANGO.

RANGO tells the story of a city lizard who is accidentally jolted out of his terrarium (and out of the back of his owner’s station wagon) and into the unforgiving desert.  Rango is having an identity crisis – naturally, he’s a chameleon – and now that he has been thrown into the sandy wild, he must figure out exactly WHO he is if he is to survive.  Eventually, Rango (wonderfully voiced by Johnny Depp) stumbles into a western town, the aptly-named Dirt, that is is dire need of a hero …

While this tried and true plotline has been told countless times before (Shane, High Plains Drifter, The Three Amigos, LOL), Verbinski certainly makes everything old new again.  In fact, while I have never seen anything quite like this movie, its homages to other films are so clever and a’plenty, I think film buffs may get a bigger kick out of it than the average person off the street.  While the main plot is something akin to Once Upon a Time in the West meets Chinatown meets Blazing Saddles, there are subtle nods to Raising Arizona, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, It’s a Wonderful Life, Apocalypse Now, The Missouri Breaks, and too many others to mention (… actually I could mention them, but much of the fun here is trying to spot these obscure cinematic references which are bound to go right over the little kiddie’s heads).

No one has ever tried to do a spaghetti western in animation style before (Tarantino’s Kill Bill not withstanding), and the result here is so impressive, so visually arresting, so hallucinogenically off kilter, and so flat-out entertaining, Verbinski may have reinvigorated a genre without even realizing it.  That chase scene through the canyon, with our heroes riding hell mell with a massive bottle of their most precious resource (water), while being pursued by bat-riding bad guys, all to the smile-inducing strains of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie played on banjoes!, is hands down the most original and entertaining scene I’ve watched all year … so far.  By the time the mysterious, and oft-mentioned Spirit of the West showed up, this film had completely won me over.

In addition to Depp’s performance, fine voice support is also provided by Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty (doing a fine John Huston impression), Abigail Breslin (who for some reason sounds like Winona Ryder here), Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, and Timothy Olyphant (who also sounds an awful lot like … oh, but that would be giving too much away).

It is absolutely worth mentioning that this film’s musical score by Hans Zimmer (Inception, Sherlock Holmes) adds a staggering amount of enjoyment, from his Raising Arizona-esque yodel symphonies, to that aforementioned banjo homage to Wagner, to the theme song sung by Los Lobos (good luck getting it out of your head for a few days), this film’s music is half of its charm, and that’s saying a lot.

I don’t want to reveal any more than necessary here, so I won’t.  I will say that, even though it’s only March, RANGO is, and will remain, one of the best films of 2011.  I loved it.

GRADE: A