Don't be surprised to see this heaping helping of awesome take Best Animated Feature at next year's Oscars.
***** out of 5
Rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking.
Article first published as Movie Review: Rango (2011) on Blogcritics.
Just when we all thought Pixar and DreamWorks had the computer animated family genre all wrapped in a nice little bow comes Paramount. Oh sure, we all know Paramount is the U.S. distributor for good ol’ DreamWorks, but who knew their real money was secretly being invested in a Nickelodeon Movies feature? On a crash course to being one of the best films of the year comes this weekend’s truly inspired “Rango.”
Director Gore Verbinski and writer John Logan are not known for family-oriented films. But they are both known for action. With Verbinski behind the camera for the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, you forget that he was also the man behind three other hilarious films – “Mousehunt,” “The Mexican,” and “The Weather Man.” Let’s not forget this is also the same man who outdid the original “Ringu” with his remake of “The Ring.”
Logan has had his hand in some great films of his own since the end of the '90s, ranging from “Any Given Sunday,” “Gladiator,” “The Last Samurai,” and “The Aviator” to “Sweeney Todd,” but he also gave us some lesser efforts in “The Time Machine” (2002) and a surprisingly bland even-numbered entry to the “Star Trek” enterprise. Together with Verbinski and star Johnny Depp, he has brought us an incredibly inspired spaghetti western just when we thought that Quentin Tarantino had shown us how great it could be done.
In “Rango” we are immediately introduced to the film’s Greek chorus of owls. They tell us about a lizard who is going to die, a daydreaming chameleon named Lars (voiced by Depp). As a scaly (and scaled down) version of Andy from the “Toy Story” films, he sure has dreams of grandeur and plays out a swashbuckling hero tale in what turns out to be his container full of rocks and a water hole for drinking. Faster than you can say “ironic unexpected conflict,” a traffic situation winds up with Lars’ tank crash-landing in the desert where the sun is so hot it molts him twice. The cause of the accident happens to be a run-down armadillo named Roadkill (voiced by Alfred Molina) who in his dying breath discusses with Lars eventually meeting him again “on the other side” of the road.
Walking into the desert in search of food, water, shelter, anything, Lars has immediate run-ins with a hawk out for blood and Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher) who has a defense mechanism that tends to pop up whenever she gets overexcited. Lars hitches a ride to the town of Dirt. Here we find out that the town is drying up and the bank only has six more days of water while Beans is discussing finances with Mr. Merrimack (voiced by Stephen Root).
Meanwhile, Lars has taken up at the local saloon where they only have cactus water (i.e. alcohol) on hand and he realizes he can be anyone he wants in this town where nobody knows his name. Lars decides to become “Rango,” a man of action who happens to have killed a posse of seven brothers with one bullet. We also find out that the Mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty, a dead ringer for James Coburn) is controlling the water supply and may have something fishy up his sleeve.
The Mayor deems Rango the new town sheriff after he accidentally kills the hawk with one bullet just like his original tall tale, to give the townsfolk something to believe in. Even if little Priscilla (Abigail Breslin) just wants dibs on his shoes or any gold fillings when trouble finally comes a-calling. Things quickly switch gears into mindboggling action set pieces after the local bank gets robbed thanks to Rango’s naïveté and he wrangles up a posse of his own to wander out into the desert in search of the water thieves and Rango’s “brother” Rattlesnake Jake (voiced by Bill Nighy) gets called in by the Mayor to keep his own brand of order in place.
As I said, the spaghetti western has been reborn. Verbinski and Logan very well may have finally given us the best western, action adventure, family entertainment that would make Sergio Leone proud. Be on the lookout for a cameo related to a previous Depp film. There’s also a great nod by composer Hans Zimmer to Carter Burwell’s “Raising Arizona” score for when things get good and wacky let alone treating us to the first great throwback to the days of Ennio Morricone.
Finally, thankfully this was not converted into the third dimension to allow us to see just how jaw dropping the visuals truly are. With Industrial Light & Magic helping things out it’s no wonder that everything looks so photo realistic save for Rango’s meeting with the Spirit of the West (aka The Man with No Name, brilliantly voiced by Timothy Olyphant). Humans have never been computer imageries number one fan.
There are some few instances with Rattlesnake Jake that may frighten the wee ones and the action gets pretty intense in a few sequences earning the film its PG rating, but the action is handled so deftly you always know what’s going on and Verbinski even manages to throw in spectacular jokes amidst the mayhem. Congratulations to everyone, Rango brings us the first great film of 2011 and a top contender for next year’s Animated Feature Oscar has arrived.
Photos courtesy Paramount Pictures