by HELEN GEIB
Rango is a lonely lizard. Or at least so proclaims the armadillo the pet chameleon meets after his glass box house is blown out through a broken rear windshield in a freak highway accident. The armadillo speaks with the voice of authority as one who talks in metaphors, and though Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) doesn’t like to admit it, in his heart he knows that his friends and his life of adventure live only in his hyperactive imagination. All that will change, however, after he finds his way to the desert town of Dirt.
At first glance, Dirt is as unprepossessing as its namesake. At second and third glance too. The town’s lifeblood and hard currency is water, and both the fields and the bank have just about run dry. The mayor and town founder, a malignant tortoise (Ned Beatty) with an English-accented goon squad, is buying up land cheap as the homesteaders move away. The population is largely reduced to a grizzled bunch of owls, rodents, toads, and other assorted critters who wile away the hours in the local saloon drinking cactus juice and playing cards. They’re softies underneath the crustiness though. So is the prickly (figuratively speaking) iguana charmer Beans (her daddy liked them; voiced by Isla Fisher) who steals Rango’s heart. He’ll need all the support he can get if he’s to recover the water stolen from the bank, him being the new sheriff and all….
If this all sounds familiar, then you’ve seen a few Westerns in your life. The animated family film Rango is to the Western as Chicken Run is to the POW movie.
The movie is packed full of genre tropes and nods to individual films in the story, characters, visual design, musical cues- in everything really. Support Your Local Sheriff and Cat Ballou stand out as fruitful sources. The Cat Ballou minstrels-like mariachi owl band that appears periodically to provide musical commentary on Rango’s story is particularly amusing. The film has a special affection for the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, a sub-theme that builds to Rango seeking guidance from the Spirit of the West a/k/a The Man With No Name (voiced by Timothy Olyphant in a quite creditable Clint Eastwood impersonation).
Rango is a delightful hero. He’s quick-witted, has a good heart, and is cute in a cartoon-reptile sort of way. (A lot of the credit for his lively personality goes to Depp’s exceptional voice work.) His character arc is admirable and admirably kid-friendly; he learns about friendship, courage, and responsibility and is a true hero of his community at the end. Parents can take their children to Rango without fear of anything worse than a couple of over-extended action sequences with excessively loud soundtracks, a slightly overlong running time, and a pronounced oversupply of bodily function jokes.
Actually children won’t get a lot of those jokes, or a lot of the other ones either. John Logan’s script is quite clever, but it’s a cleverness based in pop culture knowingness and Rango/Depp’s verbal dexterity. Again very much like Chicken Run, Rango is written primarily for adults and will be enjoyed most by those adults who know the genre conventions the film affectionately parodies and pays tribute to. On the other hand, everyone will enjoy the marvelous (thankfully 2D) animation. Rango is remarkably expressive and all the animals- furred, feathered, and scaled- are funny-looking. The desert landscapes are breathtaking in the noonday sun, under the stars, and beneath a glorious sunset.
If you go, be sure and stay through the end of the credits. You don’t want to walk out early and miss the ballad of Rango, of whose legend they sang-o.
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The Man With No Name made his debut in A Fistful of Dollars.