Movie Information

The Story: A stranded pet chameleon masquerades as a Wild West hero -- and then has to live up to his story. The Lowdown: Beautifully made, perfectly cast, fast-paced, very funny animated comedy blessed with weird and wonderful invention.
Genre: Movie Savvy Animated Comedy
Director: Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Starring: (Voices) Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy
Rated: PG

Take a director with vision, a dream voice cast, a witty, savvy screenplay, some visually stunning animation, and you have Gore Verbinski’s Rango. You also have the first film of 2011 that I can recommend without reservations—and I’m actually a little surprised. Yeah, I’ve liked—to one degree or another—every film Verbinski has made from The Ring (2002) through Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), but I wasn’t exactly taken with the character design in the stills, and animated films are a different proposition than live-action ones. Well, here Verbinski joins Tim Burton and Wes Anderson as a filmmaker who can move into animation and retain his personal stamp and visual panache.

Rango takes a few minutes to get its footing, setting up its main character, a pet chameleon (a fine Johnny Depp), but from the moment it introduces Roadkill (Alfred Molina), a Don Quixote-like armadillo, who lives up to his name (affording the film its first big laugh), it never lets up. And what it never lets up with is that rarest of things—a movie for a savvy, intelligent audience with a strong movie I.Q. The more you know about movies, the cleverer and funnier the movie is, especially when you realize that the central plot is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974)—right down to a corrupt politico (Ned Beatty) who’s nothing more, nor less than John Huston’s Noah Cross in the form of a turtle. You’ll also catch nods to Hunter S. Thompson, Sergio Leone, Francis Ford Coppola and a bit of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre family.

But there’s a world of difference between the savvy nature of Rango and the snarky post-modern pop-culture referencing that more or less began with Shrek (2001). First of all, there’s nary a trace of snarkiness here. More importantly, Rango is so wonderfully wild and even downright weird that it doesn’t matter whether or not you get the pop references. Instead of just being references, they come across as influences and become part of the fabric of the film. Yes, it’s funnier if you get the references, but it’s not an absolute requirement. Just as the film walks the tightrope between adult and family humor, so it pulls off a nigh-on-to-perfect balancing act here in this tale of a made-up hero who becomes the very thing he invented.

Interestingly, the Verbinski film this comes closest to in terms of theme is The Weather Man (2005). Both have central characters who would like to be heroes, but have no idea how to be—until they find they have no choice but to become those heroes. Granted, there’s a world of difference between the two in tone, but deep down, not so much. And visually, it bears the same striking imagery found in all his films. It may, in fact, turn out to be his best work to date. Time will tell, but until it does, see for yourself. Rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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8 thoughts on “Rango

  1. trex

    I loved this film. Fantastically told and beautiful to look at. It is right up there with the best Pixar film, maybe even better than that. It is sad that after this Pixar has only Cars 2 to offer. The only thing that upset me was (SPOILER…) The actor playing the “spirit” was not who I really thought it was. That was one hell of an impression.

  2. Ken Hanke

    It is right up there with the best Pixar film, maybe even better than that.

    I don’t think it’s quite as good as Up, but otherwise I’d agree.

    It is sad that after this Pixar has only Cars 2 to offer.

    Anything that brings Larry the Cable Guy into a theater is sad.

  3. This film is a loving tribute to the Spaghetti Western, from the bizarre minor characters to the music to the fantastic end credits.

    I think this is the best animated film since FANTASTIC MR. FOX. Highly highly recommended!

  4. Ken Hanke

    It will be interesting to see if Rango takes the top spot at the box office again this weekend. Judging by the reviews coming in for Mars Needs Moms (not good), Battle: Los Angeles (bad), and Red Riding Hood (blisteringly awful), it very well could.

  5. Erik Harrison

    The idea that “El Topo – For Kids!” is in the number two box office slot right now makes my head spin.

  6. Ken Hanke

    The idea that “El Topo – For Kids!” is in the number two box office slot right now makes my head spin.

    But is that bad thing?

  7. The actor playing the УspiritФ was not who I really thought it was. That was one hell of an impression.

    Apparently it was Timothy Olyphant, who is kind of the modern-day Eastwood on JUSTIFIED, so it was appropriate.

    I just got around to watching this, and promptly slapped myself across the head for not doing so sooner. I think this rides high with the first PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN film as Verbinski’s best. He’s going to struggle to equal it with THE LONE RANGER.

    I’d put this up on equal footing with my other two favourite Westerns of the current century – Mangold’s 3.10 TO YUMA and the Coen’s TRUE GRIT.

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