Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty
Running Time: 1 hr 47 mins
Release Date: March 4, 2011
PLOT: A naive chameleon (Depp) is stranded in the Mojave desert and finds his way to a western outpost town for critters called Dirt. Dirt needs a new sheriff and the chameleon wants a concrete identity, so he christens himself “Rango” and steps into the role of law-keeper.
WHO’S IT FOR? Everybody in the entire known universe, including aliens and bacteria.
EXPECTATIONS: One preview looked promising; one preview looked too silly; I figured mildly funny and unmemorable.
Johnny Depp as Rango: It’s hard to describe how well Depp does Rango. It’s so good, it’s a bit scary – like this may be the most talented individual on the planet and if only we could harness that power, we wouldn’t need fossil fuels. Depp plays Rango like a sweeter, more innocent version of his Gonzo from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: it’s very complex and erudite lines delivered in a lightning fast style of anxious babbling and self-meditation. But then you have the scenes where Rango runs screaming along with a hawk on his tail, and Depp shrieks, grunts, yells, “oofs” and whatever else is needed. Unlike most of us, Depp has the ability to completely remove his ego from a project like this; he isn’t worried about looking silly or how much is too much or does this movie make him look good or any of that baloney. It’s like he can unzip his skin and just pour his soul innards straight into the part.
Isla Fischer as Beans: Fischer is fantastic as the country-tough liddle lady Beans, who’s just fightin’ to save her daddy’s ranch. She gives herself the same permission to completely unload into the character without second thought, and we are blessed with a romantic interest who is just as wonderful as Rango. Her voice is a bit high and at times can veer into screechy, but Fischer knows when to rein it in so that it’s not irritating; it’s just Beans. Beans is stressed out and rightly so, and the screechiness always feels justified.
Ned Beatty as the Mayor: Beatty nails this character’s shrewd inscrutability with such aplomb, at times it makes it seem natural that turtles talk. Of course turtles talk. This isn’t animation; this is a documentary about corruption in Dirt. The Mayor appears to have polio, so he spends the bulk of the movie in a wheelchair with a blanket across his knees, but his white suit and hat say “Good Ol Boys” and his luxurious surroundings say “malfeasance.” Apparently Beatty based the character on John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown and it is the ideal personification. With the Mayor you’re never quite sure…he seems to be up to something, but then he also seems genuinely invested in Dirt’s survival…and now he seems to be up to something again.
Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake: This is the coolest villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker. You know, that sort of villain who is terrifying, but also makes you want to clap your hands and laugh with delight? Not AT him of course, or even near him, but because seeing him is such a delicious treat. Rattlesnake Jake doesn’t show up until the last two-thirds of the movie, but then he dominates as the baddest, toughest, snakiest gunslinger the critter version of the West ever done see. Oh, and his rattle is his gun. AWESOME! I know, right?
TALKING: The script is so good it has to be illegal. It’s good in a way few scripts are and it elevates above any genre you can possibly think of. All of the characters engage in dialogue that is some sort of wonderful mutation between eloquence and wild West cowboy lingo. It means you never know what anyone is going to say, because all the familiar cliches are infused with this obvious love of the English language and wordplay. It’s surprising and invigorating, when you can plot out most movies from just looking at the trailers. I have many, many favorite lines but I would say this is one of my favorites: the spiritual Native American crow who speaks in truncated cliches is watching a pappy smackin’ his boy around. “Family dysfunctional,” the crow grunts, “need intervention.”
SIGHTS: The animation will not only knock your socks off but also your pants and then you’ll be in public without socks OR pants. It’s stunning. It’s flawless. The details on the hawk’s feathers, the sheen on Rattle Snake Jake’s scales, the color patterns on Rango’s face, the fur on the tough old cat in the tavern – it’s perfect. Bloomin’ perfect.
SOUNDS: You get all the western standards to compliment the vintage situations. There is the triumphant “riding in slow-motion through the desert,” and “kiss under the moon” music. And there are those scenes where the owl mariachi band is jauntily singing away about how Rango is going to die and the hawk will eat his spleen, as Rango walks by.
BEST SCENE: People, there’s a brilliant homage to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that will delight you from your toes to your follicles.
ENDING: As wonderfully eccentric as the rest of the movie. At the beginning of the movie, the owl mariachi band – the West’s version of a Greek chorus – tells us that Rango is going to die. He is marching inexorably toward his fate. And, at the very end, when Rango doesn’t die, the main owl says, “He will die someday, probably in his house, since 65% of all unnatural deaths happen in the house.”
QUESTIONS: How many times could I watch Rango in a day without my head popping?
REWATCHABILITY: Yes. I will buy this one and force it on anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Rango is a treat, not only for the eyes, but for the intellect and in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. The movie lovingly piles on all imaginable Western cliches and strings them together with brilliant pizazz. You’ve seen every second of the plot in this movie in other movies – but in a way you’ve never seen. So right away it’s familiar, like a buddy, and smart and unpredictable, like that eccentric college professor you always liked – you know, the one who was liable to break into song or jump up on his desk or do something equally surprising and you never missed a single class?
Depp is wonderful and tends to outshine his movies. Movies that you weren’t too thrilled with like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – suddenly the unnecessary and sometimes overcooked remake is awesome because Depp is there. If he’s at the party, the party is a success; when he leaves, the rest of the party-goers leave with him.
This isn’t the case in Rango. Are you expecting to like Depp’s wacky performance, but shrug off the rest of the movie? Well, be prepared for an entire movie that can keep exact pace with Depp. It is wonderful, bizarre excellence dressed up like a classic western; it’s something completely original. It’s sweet. It’s self-aware. It’s everything you’d want it to be.
FINAL SCORE: 10/10