I've written before about how new Hollywood kids' movies are probably not the best use of my time here: There's no shortage of perfectly good reviewers out there already, and these big-budget films have big advertising budgets as well—it's not like anyone is unlikely to have heard about them. (In fact, most of us parents are likely to get dragged to even the worst-reviewed of these movies.)
But sometimes enthusiasm overwhelms logic. Such is the case for me with Rango, a wonderfully odd new animated film directed by Gore Verbinski, of Pirates of the Caribbean fame, and featuring the voice of that series' star, Johnny Depp, in the lead role. With the best of the non-Pixar division of animation, you tend to hear a lot about how beautiful the film is. ("Good-looking" is in this genre the equivalent of "having a good personality," I guess.) Rango is no exception: Revered cinematographer Roger Deakins has a consulting credit on the movie, and while I have only a very vague concept of what that means, exactly, for an animated film, the western vistas against which this story plays out are often breathtaking, and several lighting effects will have you wondering if the filmmakers have surreptitiously switched to live action.
But as remarkable as its visuals are, they’re not what makes Rango truly special—to my mind, the first Hollywood animated film that competes on the same playing field with Pixar. This is a strange movie, in the best sense: one that doesn't follow the by-now-worn paths most modern animated kids' films obediently trudge along. Among its delights is that, at least until it reins things in a bit for its denouement, you're never be quite sure where it's heading next.
Depp's title character is a pet chameleon, and the film opens in his imagination. (Indeed, there's always the possibility that we're spending the whole film there, a device I admit I'm always a sucker for.) He is happily play-directing a "film" starring himself and various inanimate objects in his tank, when an unforeseen accident leaves him alone on a desolate western highway. After being briefed on the concept of mystical missions by a Don Quixote–esque armadillo, he wanders through the desert to the town of Dirt, where various locals (each a different personified, and very realistic-looking, animal—somehow the mole looks both like a real mole and like Harry Dean Stanton, who provides its voice) are struggling to survive due to a dwindling water supply.
In the tradition of many a comic western, from My Little Chickadee to Three Amigos!, our hero is mistaken for a gunslinger and immediately appointed sheriff, then tasked with solving the water problem. He soon finds that it has something to do with the town's mayor, a smooth-talking turtle (voiced by Ned Beatty, who's been cornering the market on animated villains lately) who seems to be the only one in town with a regular water supply anymore.
Rango is written with Pixar-ian cleverness, its adult-aimed references aimed coming a mile a minute, yet delivered subtly and smoothly enough that kids won't be distracted by them. Many of the subtlest are just cinematic: Between them, Verbinski and composer Hans Zimmer give a nod to just about every famous film ever set in the West, from John Ford's oeuvre to Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns (their hero gets a cameo as “the Spirit of the West,” voiced by Timothy Olyphant) to Raising Arizona (whose yodeling theme gets an homage during a chase sequence).
But even as one notices happily that Beatty's turtle is channeling the menace of John Huston's character in Chinatown—this, too, is a story about stealing water, after all—the ultimate joy is in the tale itself, as it should be. And much of the appeal, it must be said, comes down to Depp himself, who somehow manages a solely vocal star turn here; you can almost hear how much he's enjoying the freedom of acting without his superfamous face. Working with a director he's clearly comfortable with, he lets it all hang out, and his Rango is as marvelously and adorably weird as the most beloved of the Muppets—insecure, self-analytical, garrulous, and so kind and well-meaning that you, and especially your kids, will love him instantly. (In a way, what Depp and the writers have done here is reboot Kermit the Frog—those are the kinds of warm feelings this character generates.)
The other voice talent maintains the high level set by Depp, though that's no surprise—the one thing you can count on in even the worst animated films nowadays is a crack voice cast. This one includes Isla Fisher as Rango's traditionally dubious love interest, Alfred Molina as the questing armadillo, and Bill Nighy as a truly scary rattlesnake gunman with a pencil mustache.
One other thing—more than in most cases, you'll want to see this one on the big screen; Rango's visuals are that remarkable. (Okay, I suppose those of you with wall-size flat screens can perhaps wait for the Blu-ray....)
[Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures]