Film Review: Rango (2011)

Rango is one of the most bizarre and stylish animated films to be made in America in many years. Part existential ruminations on identity and theater, part absurd humor, part alienation effect through constant suggestion of death directly to the audience, and part Western, Rango manages to meld many disparate elements into a stylish film that just lands close enough to being a cohesive story to count. Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) is a chameleon with an identity crisis. In the opening scene, he is putting on an original production of a hybrid Shakespearean tragedy with a headless Barbie doll, a wind up mechanical fish, a plastic palm tree, and a dead bug. He views himself as the hero, though decides after an argument with the tree (that's all in his head as the non-living things are not anthropomorphized here) that he needs an ironic turn of events to create conflict. Cue his terrarium flying out of his owner's car without the family noticing anything went wrong with their packing job.

Rango bumps into an armadillo (who was run over and looks flat as a pancake) who tells him to walk into the desert to find a town filled with water. On his way, he bumps into Beans (Isla Fisher), a tough-talking lizard rancher who doesn't take no for an answer unless her defense mechanism of paralysis kicks in. She drives him into town where both discover the water supply (their currency) is near dried-up. Rango boasts his way into the position of mayor and sets out to discover what happened to the town's water supply.

Rango's screenplay is filled with self-referential commentary and homages to other films. For example, when Rango tries to cross a busy desert highway, he is tossed about from car to car, eventually landing on Hunter S. Thompson's windshield. A small rodent is styled after Mattie Ross in True Grit, complete with twin braids and high button blouse. If not a specific reference to a particular property, you'll recognize the bank and shoot-out settings, the looming clock tower, and various authority figures in the town.

The film is beautiful. The washed out colors of the town read Western without falling into cliches of what a Western has to look like. The animals are rendered with exquisite detail, from scales to feathers and everything in between. Even their clothing is filled with great realistic details. When humans do appear, they are rendered cartoonish enough to not be off-putting and misplaced in the otherwise animal world of the film. Most noteworthy of all is how well the water is animated; it moves perfectly and becomes the most visually desirable and precious object in the film.

Rango is very weird at times. There is a quartet of owls--a mariachi band--who continually pop in like a Greek chorus to sing about how Rango is going to die any minute now. The effect is Brechtian, as the quartet is communicating the doubts of the audience directly to the audience (removed from the action of the film until Rango, the only character with an understanding of theater, chooses to communicate with them to comment on their fall from the conceit) to comment upon the audience's reactions to the characters in an animated film. If that's not enough, animals explode in chase scenes involving bats but are also sophisticated enough to have steampunk-like technology, such as wheelchair controlled golf clubs and tail-controlled gun turrets. And then there are moments where the music is just plain odd. Have you ever heard a variation on "Ride of the Valkyries" performed with a banjo and mandolin? You will if you watch this film.

Rango is certainly the strangest family film I've seen in theaters and actually ranks up there with some of the more unusual Cronenberg, Lynch, and Jeunet features for use of bizarre imagery and storytelling devices. It's an animated film that will certainly entertain a child but is really meant to be appreciated by an adult.

Rating: 7/10

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