What It Is

At the start of the movie named for him, Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) has no name. A chameleon living inside a glass tank, he’s surrounded by plastic objects — a tree, a doll’s torso, a fish — and, inside his extremely limited universe, he’s quite able to entertain himself inside his tank. But one day, as he’s riding in his tank in the back seat of his human family’s car, a traffic mishap lands him on the highway, surrounded now by shattered glass.

A lengthy walk across the desert lands the chameleon in a town called Dirt, currently suffering from a severe lack of water. Here he meets a lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher), trying to keep her family’s ranch despite efforts by the Mayor (Ned Beatty) to buy up all land in sight. Finding himself in a saloon full of moles, rabbits, toads, and lizards, the chameleon feels pressured to fit in and makes up a story: he’s a tough and frankly ingenious Western hero, one who’s recently killed seven villainous brothers with one bullet. The townsfolk make him sheriff, whereupon he’s pressured again, to do the Mayor’s bidding — that is, to go along with a scheme to hide water and make money.

Rango’s journey includes falling in love with Beans, leading a posse to capture a family of moles accused of robbing the (water) bank, and battling a giant rattle snake named Jake (Bill Nighy). He also comes across a mysterious stranger in the desert, with a golf cart full of Oscars and a decided resemblance to The Man With No Name (the character played by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s wonderful spaghetti Westerns), who offers advice on how he might best find and then be himself. It’s a lesson drawn from the fact that Rango is a chameleon, and also that the movie is based on a host of other movies. As actors, like chameleons and a lot of kids too, work hard to fit in, they sometimes lose track of themselves. It’s good to remember who you are.

Why It’s Fun

The animation, augmented by ILM’s technologies, is great fun, detailed and lively. The desert denizens — reptiles, rats, and owls alike — express themselves as much in subtle facial expressions as in remarkably clever dialogue. These include smart, even complex, references to excellent movies (as opposed to the usual tactic of referring to easy target pop culture), as when the Mayor — who’s in a wheelchair like Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life — assures Rango that the water pumps he’s looking at are “The future, Mr. Rango, the future”, just as another great villain, John Huston as Noah Cross, told Jack Nicholson in Chinatown). Some of the best jokes are visual asides: in Dirt, one clock tower is made of a pocket watch, and another of an old can marked “Thyme.”

When bouncing from his family’s car on the highway, Rango lands briefly on the windshield of a car driven by Johnny Depp’s character from another of his movies set in the desert, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (attentive viewers will spot an animated and an inebriated Benicio del Toro in the back seat).

And the town’s regular ritual — celebrating the Deliverance of Hydration — is hokey and hilarious, as well as a little creepy, but not scary (its participants are like zombies). It’s an apt evocation of how people fall into habits they stop thinking about, but only go through motions.

Who’s Going To Love It

Fans of Westerns will appreciate the movie’s embrace of age-old conventions: the stranger who rides into town, the little lady with an attitude, the arrogant villain and the “varmints” who do his dirty work, even the banker (here a squirrel, of course).

Johnny Depp fans will appreciate his particularly wry, self-effacing, and careful line readings. Rango is who Johnny Depp might be if he was a chameleon.

Kids will like the action and the terrifically rendered characters. And they might like the fart joke too.

Parents who like classic movies — from the olden days of Frank Capra and John Ford through to the ’70s and ’80s — will love the movie’s respectful references to such sources. Rango’s allusions are more sophisticated than most that pop up in animated movies, less about today’s pop culture (as DreamWorks has worked over in the Shrek movies) and more about how movies over time reflect and also shape our lives.

What To Be Aware Of

The violence is frequently hectic and slapsticky, occasionally spastic in the way that animation can be, which is to say, slyly entertaining. Some of the allusions are especially funny (when the mole gang attacks Rango’s posse by flying into a fleet of bats, their appearance over the horizon heralded by a bit of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” after Apocalypse Now.)

A mean hawk, called in to menace Rango, suffers a band end, crushed beneath a fallen tower, much like the Wicked Witch of the West.

A proposed duel in the town center leads not to gunfire, but to one set of shooters’ decision to run away, owing to the arrival of Rattlesnake Jake.

The film includes a fart joke, as well as a couple of mild sexual innuendos.

The Mayor smokes a cigar, a sign that he’s a bad guy. He also drinks water he’s stolen, while the rest of the population is stuck drinking cactus juice, apparently very disagreeable, judging by reactions to its taste.

The Mayor has a vavoomy secretary named Angelique (Claudia Black), with cartoon cleavage.

Some language, including several uses of “hell,” plus an implied “Son of a b....” trailing off after the B.

See-It-Again Points

10 out of 10

Film Information

Director: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Ray Winstone, Beth Grant, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Alfred Molina, Timothy Olyphant
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Year: 2011
Rated: PG
US Premiere: March 4, 2011
UK Premiere: March 4, 2011
Official Website
Official Trailer
Movie Pictures


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