Within the first several minutes of Gore Verbinski’s animated film Rango it is apparent that the film’s target audience is quite different than the marketing campaign seemed to imply. The opening scene is riddled with Shakespeare references followed by a brutal and scary car accident and the image of a talking armadillo severed in two, one cannot help but wonder what value anyone under the age of eighteen could get from such a film.
It has always been the trend for animated films to insert subtle sexual innuendos and adult-geared pop-culture references to please the parents who take their children to the cinema. Recent movies like Toy Story 3, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and the entire Shrek franchise have featured abundant use of cinematic references to allow for an intelligent distraction from the otherwise menial plot. Never before have the references been geared at such a limited target audience as those in Rango, however. Parallels can be drawn between Gore Verbinski’s animated lizard movie and classics like Chinatown, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the Man With No Name trilogy. The result is something that will initially offer some hearty laughs for cinephiles, but once the novelty of the references wears off we are left with something as dry as the desert setting.
Johnny Depp voices the title lizard, a lonely reptile on a mission to find himself. When a car accident propels him from his terrarium into a stark desert setting Rango becomes like the protagonists in the great Spaghetti westerns of the 1970s and ventures into an unknown environment in search of destiny. He comes across the lawless town of Dirt, where water is the most precious commodity and the townspeople are in dire need of a hero. After inadvertently impressing the townspeople with a series of blunders that look like heroic acts, Rango appoints himself the town sheriff, sworn to protect citizens like the narcoleptic and eager female lizard Beans (Isla Fischer), the apparently inept rabbit Doctor (Stephen Root), and the hardened turtle Mayor (Ned Beatty).
The story becomes almost directly parallel to that of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown as the town’s remaining water supply is stolen immediately after the sheriff callously delivers the familiar line: “control the water and you control the people.” Rango goes on a hunt to find the stolen water that leads him to several Western movie archetypes including a rendezvous with the inexplicably hilarious Spirit of the West.
Rango’s emphasis on obscure cinematic references is not all that makes it a unique member of its genre. It is also rare in that it is a studio produced film that bears an individual artist’s vision. Pixar and Dreamworks are two of the dominant animation studios and they have established a sort of art by committee style where dozens of collaborators have a say in the final product. The result is something that is nearly flawlessly executed, but it loses the feel of auteurism. In that sense, Rango is more like the films of Hayao Miyazaki or Sylvain Chomet in that it has Gore Verbinski’s personal flourishes, stylistic choices, and indulgences in just about every frame.
However, it never feels like the studio is completely removed from the film’s editing room. Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies teamed up for the production and distribution of this film and their kid-minded agenda feels distractingly present throughout. Like the Spirit of the West haunts Rango as a specter of cinema past, Nickelodeon seems to haunt Gore Verbinski as a harbinger of poop jokes and family-friendly pop culture references. These sporadic and random asides interrupt the absurdly intellectual tone that Verbinski establishes and alienates the target audience of mature lovers of film.
Rango is one of the first mainstream animated films in two years to be released without any 3D versions available. George Lucas’ well-known special effects company Industrial Light and Magic does their first animated work with this film and they create a refreshing and original visual motif. Unlike the bright colors and wide-eyed characters that have become assets to most mainstream animation studios, Rango’s characters bask in their imperfections. The vast, empty landscape has a gritty and serious feel that is more reminiscent of recent Coen brothers movies like No Country for Old Men or True Grit than its animated brethren. This appearance is no coincidence as long-time Coen cinematographer (and notorious Oscar snubee) Roger Deakins acts as a consultant on the film.
Bottom Line: Rango will provide plenty of temporary laughs for cinephiles, but once it gets past the referential humor what is left is pretty shallow.