At The Picture Show
A fistful of awesome
Gore Verbinski's masterful 'Rango' has brains, wit, charm and imagination to spare
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenplay: John Logan
Starring: The voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina,
Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Bill Nighy, Ray Winstone and Timothy Olyphant
Rated PG / 1 hour, 47 minutes
Opened March 4, 2011
(out of four)
If I find myself walking out of a theatre asking myself with incredulity, "How did that movie
even get made?" - chances are someone is doing something right. But that was my precise
reaction after Gore Verbinski's astonishing Rango - a surrealist Spaghetti Western with an
existential frame and a Chinatown plot that was neither toned down nor forced to undergo a 3D
conversion cash grab.
If you're wondering how, in 2011, a 2D, surrealist Spaghetti Western with an existentialist frame
and a Chinatown plot can get produced, I'm as stumped as you are - but Paramount deserves
major kudos for letting it happen.
Rango is one of the most stunning animated films I've seen in, say,
15 years or so - a virtuoso display of immaculate design and history-literate cinematic
sophistication, filled with the kinds of unique peculiarities that inform us this is a work of
creative passion rather than focus testing.
How else would one be able to explain a film that opens with its protagonist self-reflexively
pondering his own identity in the midst of a Dali-inspired, surrealist tableau before journeying
into the desert to find himself, and which eventually turns into a Sergio Leone-by-way-of-noir
setup in which a mysterious stranger arrives in a one-horse town to inadvertently wage battle
with forces of corruption and oppression?
Rango is the rare film brimming with a specific and dynamic creative vision that manages to
follow it through to the end, joyfully piling on one great detail or wrinkle after another. While
Paramount surely expected to get a bit of bang for its buck when it green-lit a colorful animated
film with the likes of Johnny Depp on board, it may not have expected the final result to be
something sure to be appreciated better by adults than children. And appreciated even more by
the cinephiles (like myself) who will take great pleasure in, for instance, the ironic wit of the
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas reference, as our protagonist chameleon (voiced by Depp)
comes face to face with Raoul Duke, Dr. Gonzo and The Great Red Shark for a fleeting and
But it's just that kind of careful consideration and wit and
ingenuity that defines every frame of this movie. The animation department practically deserves
its own Oscar for the work it put in on this movie. Just look at each character and setting and
marvel at the pure visual dexterity on display - the unique and brilliant design of each and every
character; the meticulous level of detail and color.
In a world dominated by the consistently great Pixar, I don't say what I'm about to say lightly -
but Rango has taken animation to another level of artistry.
How many animated films have we seen lately where characters all have more or less the same
look? Not here. The sheer level of effort and creative force it must have taken to make this film
is mind-boggling to me. Even the more familiar ideas work well. For example, Rango attempts
the same Apocalypse Now reference that every other movie does - you know, the whole Ride of
the Valkyries thing - but does it in such clever fashion and with such style that it never feels
All this and I've barely scratched the surface of what Rango accomplishes with its story, and
how that goes so perfectly hand-in-hand with the film's varying genre influences and stylistic
proclivities. Our hero's existential crisis leads him to a town simply (and fittingly) named Dirt,
way out in the middle of the Mojave Desert. What he sees is not just a depressed Old West town
suffering the pains of a long and extended drought (or so it seems . . .), but a new beginning for
himself. A chance to create his own identity. His own legend. Myth, even.
And so he takes the name of Rango, the reputation of a hardened
gunfighter who once killed seven men with one bullet, and the status of local hero - and does
such a convincing job of it that he's almost immediately coronated as the town's new sheriff by
the blatantly odious Mayor Tortoise John (voiced by Ned Beatty).
The townsfolk have almost unflappable faith in the belief that the drought will soon come to an
end - that the water will finally come to turn their daily sorrows into renewed hope. In fact, the
citizens of Dirt literally worship at the feet of a towering faucet on the edge of town, believing -
knowing - that on this day, finally, the flood gates will open.
But day after day, the drought continues.
Only, how does one explain the water that - according to one character, at least - is being
dumped in the middle of the desert? Or the corpse found deep in the desert that was not shot, nor
stabbed, nor exhausted, but drowned? (Yes, Chinatown fans, you have permission to jump out of
your seat in glee, as I did. And just wait until you hear, "The future, Mr. Rango, the future!" If
you weren't already, by that point you'll be head over heels in love with this movie.)
There's been a lot of talk in recent years about the rebirth of the Western - and that talk has
merit, considering the last few years have given us The Assassination of Jesse James by the
Coward Robert Ford, The Proposition, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, True Grit, No
Country for Old Men and 3:10 to Yuma.
Well, we can add Rango to that list. Far from using the Western
aesthetic as a mere backdrop, the film fully explores all the nooks and crannies of the genre,
injecting its own ironic sensibilities into the Spaghetti style while at the same time utilizing it for
all its dramatic force. It's positively Tarantinian.
There's so much to savor in Rango that it's hard to know where to begin or end. The dialogue
("We're experiencing a paradigm shift!" . . . "Someone's got a bad valve!"), the animation, the
Lee Van Cleef-inspired Rattlesnake Jake character (voiced by Bill Nighy) . . . well, just all of it,
To be honest, I don't know quite where this Gore Verbinski has been. Sure, he gave us the first
Pirates of the Caribbean movie . . . but then again, he also gave us the third one. A few years
back he did fantastic work on the vastly overlooked and underrated The Weather Man, so I knew
he had the chops. Still, I was left unprepared for the pure virtuosity on display in Rango. If all
movies had even one-twentieth the imagination of this film and its creators, Hollywood would be
in much better shape.
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Read more by Chris Bellamy