DVD Review: Johnny Depp and his Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski re-team for Rango, an animated spaghetti-western spoof that’s one of the weirdest, wildest, and yee-haw funniest “kids’” movies in years.
The greatest thing about Rango isn’t that it’s a clever riff on spaghetti westerns and stars Johnny Depp as a chameleon and Timothy Olyphant as Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. It isn’t that it’s a much-needed return to a classic Looney Tunes animated silly-smartness for adults. Or that it’s chock full of crusty, computer-animated loveliness.
No, the greatest thing about Rango is that it exists. Clearly trading in a freebie from their Pirates success, Verbinski and Depp, along with screenwriter John Logan, seem to have had a wild, nonsensical blast making exactly the film they wanted to.
Depp’s in fine, funny fiddle voicing the title character, an artsy minded pet lizard who accidentally finds himself stranded in the Mojave Desert and thrust into the middle of the critter town of Dirt’s water wars. From there Rango gussies up every Sergio Leone cliché with whip-smart sass and slapstick confidence.
Dirt is populated by a parade of rodents, birds, bugs, reptiles, toads, wild cats, moles, voles, and various other varmints, including Isla Fisher as Rango’s potential sweetheart, Abigail Breslin as a True Gritty little possum, Bill Nighy as a gun-slinging Lee Van Cleef rattlesnake, and Ned Beatty as Chinatown’s John Huston–only in turtle form.
As he did for How to Train Your Dragon, brilliant cinematographer “adviser” Roger Deakins (True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James, No Country for Old Men) is on hand to give Rango a gorgeous visual palette. The streets and shacks of Dirt are filled with dusty detail and its surrounding skies and vistas are stunning.
But what’s really fun is how utterly strange and potentially off-putting all these creatures look and behave. Big inhuman eyes, skeevy feathers, misshapen heads—one even walks around with an arrow through his eye. The “love interest” is a lizard whose defense mechanism causes her to randomly seize up and go catatonic for a few minutes.
The original Looney Tunes cartoons were not made for kids—they were created for grown-ups, to be shown before grown-up feature films. Rango embraces that tradition, and not just with a goofy Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in-joke, a vision-questing armadillo (Alfred Molina) who looks like Don Quixote, and more than a little Raising Arizona DNA. Much of the movie feels written for an adult audience (including a few light-blue innuendos), while remaining accessible and enjoyable for older children.
Verbinski’s done this sort of thing before: His 1997 live-action Mousehunt was a knowing homage to cat-and-mouse mayhem. And while Depp has always been an artistic eccentric, he’s certainly soaked up some quirky tricks from all those Tim Burton movies. Together they infuse Rango with the sort of weirdo subversion that sneaked in and made the Pirates movies enjoyable.
That’s not to say Rango is all that deep and meaningful–thankfully. It’s still a kids’ film that’s out to entertain with some wacky laughs and the usual hyperkinetic sight gags. But it also forgoes the now de rigueur “Pixar Heart.” No knock on Pixar’s rightfully lauded emotional richness, but it’s nice once in a while to forget about moral lessons and go tumbling tail over tea kettle in a much odder direction.
Rango tumbles delightfully. When the dust—and all the sly movie references—clear, it’s a whole lot of goofy, (forked) tongue-in-cheek fun.