Rango is one of the best durn looking movies in a long time. Not just in animated movies, but movies. Every shot has an amazing sense of composition. Director Gore Verbinski really uses the entire screen, like a canvas, in such a way that points out how other movies just don’t do that.
Johnny Depp, in the title role, reminds us all what a good actor he really is, as his lizard is the ultimate actor, a chameleon in the true sense of the word. Talk about adapting. When the fabulous improvisational acting workshop that he apparently holds every day in his lonely fishtank is cut short — said tank goes flying out the back of his owner’s car while they are swerving to avoid crashing on the highway — he is cast into the wilderness to find his way through the desert and his dreams until he discovers what he is really made of.
There are all sorts of knowing winks and references to movie genres and specific films — Sergio Leone westerns, of course, Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name,” Blazing Saddles, Star Wars wookies and fighters in flight, every last-ditch western town where a stranger walks into a saloon and everything stops dead as the hard characters take in the nervous newcomer. And “Rango,” as he calls himself in a fit of improvisation, after he sees the word “Durango” out of the corner of his eye, jumps into his new role as savior and sheriff with relish and phenomenal good luck.
I went with my 7-year-old, and while there were definitely some scary moments, I didn’t feel that it was inappropriate for her. I did some parental guidance. The fights and scares and even deaths are all very Wile E. Coyote meets Road Runner. They’re kind of gruesome, but kind of funny, too. There is a sequence (quite wonderful) where Rango and pals are being chased by creatures on bats. The scene is about on par with the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, which are admittedly, still quite creepy, but again, I think not too much for the kid. There were a few moments when she snuggled closer, telling me she was scared, but it was the good kind of being scared, when you’re happy to share the thrill safely with mom nearby.
The primary palette of Rango is monochromatic, which makes sense for a movie where a lot of the action takes place in a dust-covered, water-deprived, western town. Rango himself provides the main dashes of color, with his bright green skin and his loud red and white Hawaiian shirt. But the film in no way looks flat. The details of every surface of skin, hair, tooth, and nail gives the film real texture and interest. It is not a 3D movie, but it has more visual interest than any 3D movie I have seen.
Another thing I loved about Rango was the dialogue. Rango is first and foremost an actor, and he’s spent much of his life virtually alone, in a glass terrarium, so he has had plenty of time to develop his gift of gab. When he touches down in the town of Dirt, he is surrounded by locals who talk the talk of the movie western and he manages to use his strengths of adaptation to blend right in:
Rango: Now you get back on in there and you assert yourself and I think you’ll find the people in this town to be suprisingly hospitable.
Bar Guy 1: Thank you, Sheriff.
Bar Guy 2: What?! Not you again!! (throws Bar Guy 1 out)
Rango: I stand corrected.
Not only is the dialogue funny, but it is multi-sylllabic. Kids big and small in the audience might just learn something, as Rango urges book-learnin’, “Stay in school, eat your veggies, and burn all the books that ain’t Shakespeare.” Rango, first and foremost, always the actor’s actor.
For grown-up movie buffs there are some great nods to classic films. Ned Beatty as the Mayor of Dirt sounds eerily like Chinatown’s John Huston. Tim Olyphant impersonates Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and one of the town residents, owl-like Furgus, has the creaky voice of classic Hollywood western sidekick Andy Devine. Depp and Verbinski also load in lots of fun self-references. In Rango’s opening monologue he ponders what sort of character he should be, quite a few of them sounding a bit like past roles on Depp’s resume. Later, when he is buffeted about on the highway, he splats momentarily on the windshield of the convertible from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, until a windshield wiper sends him on his way.
There is much to love about this film, and I suspect, it will only grow better with multiple viewings. I wanted a chance to examine some of the animal inhabitants of Dirt a little more closely, as they look similar to real animals I may have seen, but … not quite. But mostly I’d like to hear Rango try to figure it all out again, while having an existential crisis and wisecracking his way through the West.