A new sheriff in town – Rango review

Rango – Starring Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher and Ned Beatty. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Rated PG. Originally published March 8, 2011. By Simon Miraudo.

I just don’t know if we’ll see a film as smart or fun or overwhelmingly rich as Rango for the rest of the year. That’s not meant to be a pre-emptive dis on the rest of 2011’s cinematic output, but a hyperbolic smothering (my favourite kind!) of adulation on Gore Verbinski’s perfectly realised animated spaghetti-western satire. It’s been written numerous times (by me of course) that I have no time for children’s pictures that lean too heavily on pop culture references and real-world jokes, such as when Shrek gives a shout out to Jersey Shore or when the cast of Madagascar break it down to the latest Flo Rida song, or whatever. In my opinion, that’s no better than the point-and-state “look, there’s Lady Gaga” style of humour from the Friedberg/Seltzer “comedies” Disaster Movie, Epic Movie etc. Rango is closer in style to the Edgar Wright spoofs Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and his razor-sharp-satire Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, in which the references to other films are made lovingly and inserted appropriately, and never at the expense of pacing or characterisation. Sure, movie fans will appreciate the fact that Rango is a frantic-fusion of classics as Yojimbo, Chinatown and The Man With No Name trilogy – with a smattering of action sequences that recall the Indiana Jones series at its best – but they’ll love that it’s a standalone work of excellence that requires no prior knowledge of film history to appreciate it.

The picture begins with a pet chameleon – voiced by the eternally-youthful-sounding and wonderfully playful Johnny Depp – attempting to stage an epic theatrical production inside his glass cage with his only companions: a fake tree, a wind-up goldfish, and a headless, limbless Barbie doll. It doesn’t seem like his owners have christened him with a name, so he is obsessed with the existential dilemma that consumes us all (“Who am I?”) and has convinced himself he is an actor; the one profession that is both fed by, and feeds, such neurotic anguish. When he is accidentally stranded in the Nevada desert – thanks to some appropriate cosmic randomness –he happens upon the little town of Dirt, populated by animals and western archetypes. Seeing an opportunity for a quick rebrand, he introduces himself as ‘Rango’, the fastest, most dangerous gunslinger that they ever done saw.

Although feisty rancher’s daughter Beans (Isla Fisher) is suspicious of Rango, the rest of the townsfolk are more than eager to celebrate him as their new champion. It seems Rango has wandered into Dirt as it teeters on the brink of collapse. A drought threatens to ruin the town, and the bank can’t account for all the missing water that was recently deposited by the local citizens. Kindly Mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty) isn’t worried, and if that weren’t enough to make you suspicious of him, his Noah Cross-esque speeches should do the trick.

Although it might fly over the littlies heads, you have to appreciate the timely (but also timeless) jabs made at the expense of exploitative landowners and financial institutions. The animals of Dirt cannot comprehend how the bank – their most trusted establishment – could simply lose all their water by the time of the drought. Surely storing it there during the flush years meant the bank would take care of them on a not-so-rainy day? As is often the case during poverty and environmental devastation, the Dirtians turn to religion, performing a ritualistic dance and prayer as they head to the “Holy Spigot”, hoping the giant tap will provide them with some much needed hydration. It churns out nothing but gloop and mud. This is some brutal social commentary.

Fear not; the movie avoids the on-the-nose lecturing and point-making of Happy Feet, and kids probably won’t be bothered comparing Rango it to fellow post-GFC pics Inside Job or The Company Men. Still, that incisive satire is merely the cherry on top a film as visually gorgeous, fantastically funny and consistently action packed as this. The animation, from first-timers Industrial Light and Magic, is as close to photorealistic as we’ve seen (without it tumbling into the uncanny valley). The animals are grimy and gross, but in the same way the extras were in True Grit; there is an attention to detail here usually only achieved by the dreamweavers at Pixar. John Logan’s screenplay finds the perfect balance in appealing to both kids and adults alike, and Verbinski, freed from the constraints of his dead-in-the-water Pirates saga, is able to show-off his mastery of the action set piece without having to tie it to that series’ convoluted mythology.

There were moments where I felt the film got a little too spooky for anyone under the age of, well, twenty-five, and that it really would have benefited from a better defined, more imposing antagonist. But anytime I felt pangs of doubt about Rango‘s greatness, we were treated to a vibrant action sequence, a wonderful character moment, or a sly little reference to another classic picture. Although it shan’t sit alongside The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or Chinatown in the pantheon of all-time greats, it has rightfully earned a place beside fellow western-comedies Three Amigos and Blazing Saddles. And in a year when Pixar’s big release is Cars 2, we could be looking at a new contender for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. And, dare we say it, a potential Best Picture nominee…

4.5/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here

Rango arrives on DVD and Blu-ray July 7, 2011.

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