Rango (2011)

Director:  Gore Verbinski
Cast:  Johnny DeppIsla FisherAbigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Ray Winstone
Plot:  Rango is an ordinary chameleon who accidentally winds up in the town of Dirt, a lawless outpost in the Wild West in desperate need of a new sheriff.

Genre:  Animation /Adventure / Comedy
Awards:  Won 1 Oscar - Best Animated Feature
Runtime:  107min
Rating:  PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking.

Is this the first animated Western feature ever made?  If it is, it is a commendable breakthrough by Gore Verbinski, the famed director of the wildly popular Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, and 2007) trilogy. 

Rango merges the glory of the old Western with the limitless creativity animation offers to give us a visually sumptuous film that is undoubtedly an early contender for an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.  Scripted by John Logan, the respected screenwriter of Gladiator (2000), The Last Samurai (2003) and The Aviator (2004), Rango is a story well-told despite its rigid narrative structure.

Rango stars Johnny Depp in a quite astonishing voice performance for the title character, who is a chameleon-like lizard that accidentally winds up in a Wild West town called Dirt, an arid land populated by weird-looking talking animals with parched faces who are desperate for water to survive. 

The egotistical Rango, sensing an opportunity to be a hero, starts to act like one, “earning” the respect of the townspeople by telling a fictional story of how he killed seven baddies with just one bullet.  He is made the sheriff, a role he is proud to play, as he seeks to investigate the urgent water issue.

Rango is the first animated feature created in the studios of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), a company best known to have invented the modern visual effects in the late 1970s.  And if this is the standard ILM are setting for themselves, the folks at DreamWorks animation, and to some extent, Pixar would probably be having more sleepless nights than usual. 

The visuals are stunning to look at, with a more gritty approach favored towards rendering the environment and characters as opposed to the polished look associated with most animated films.

With Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, 2007; True Grit, 2010) serving as a consultant for cinematography, you know better to take Rango seriously.  While the story of an outsider arriving in a new town and ends up being the hero is a tad cliché even by Western standards, Rango however imbues in its lead character a waft of eccentricity that plays out humorously with the simple-minded supporting characters that populate the film. 

Much of the humor is aimed at adults, though kids would be too engrossed in the story to give much thought to some of the film’s more offensively hilarious moments.  References to the history of cinema have been the staple of a number of Pixar films including Toy Story 2 (1999), and Finding Nemo (2003).  In Rango, ILM is no different, channeling everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) to Chinatown (1974) to Mr. Clint Eastwood himself.  

Verbinski’s crisp direction allows the action spectacle to be enjoyed fully without half the time forcing viewers to wonder what is going on.  There are no problems with the film’s pacing, though the final third becomes way too predictable and may cause a fair share of viewers to look at their watches.

Rango, even with its flaws, is still an interesting watch, although Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), a quirky and peculiar stop-motion animated feature with Western elements, is a far more effective film.  Nevertheless, Rango reminds today’s cinemagoers that there is really no need to don 3-D glasses to have an immersive cinematic experience when 2-D animation is just as good, if not miles better.

GRADE: B+ (8/10 or 3.5 stars)

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