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.