Rango (**)

Inspired concept and stunning visuals can only go so far in "Rango"...

I like the concept at its most basic level…An animated western. Simple, not really ever done before as best I can tell. Directed by Gore Verbinski, who brought us the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy, and with Industrial Light & Magic’s first foray into animated filmmaking, “Rango” seemingly has all of the elements locked in place for a tremendously fun and entertaining, perhaps even unique, filmgoing experience. But somewhere along the way, the fun gets sucked right out of the rather unwieldy and excessively violent “Rango” – a film that looks extraordinary, but cannot deliver a compelling story in any way, shape, or form.

The beginnings of “Rango” are inspired and refreshingly different. Fancying himself an actor, we met an unnamed chameleon (Johnny Depp) and an elaborate “play” is taking place within his aquarium. When an unfortunate and sudden accident leaves him laying on a hot and barren stretch of road, his world changes forever. An unsettling encounter with an armadillo (Alfred Molina) and narrowly escaping a hawk’s attack, finds the chameleon stumbling into the life of Beans (Isla Fisher), a lizard who picks up the chatty chameleon and dumps him off outside of the small town of Dirt.

Dirt is literally a dustbowl of a town, dry and suffering through a devastating drought. Every Wednesday, the mayor (Ned Beatty) convenes the town’s population to a giant water spigot for the weekly water rations. Unfortunately, water has all but stopped falling from the giant faucet and despair has set in amongst the town. Beans asks the chameleon to investigate the water shortage, as she is aware that in the town’s bank, a water cooler holds approximately 6 weeks of water, and the mayor seems to never complain about the conditions. To gain the trust of the townsfolk, the chameleon tells tall tales of his ability to murder seven infamous brothers with one bullet, and various other exploits. When forced to take a name, he adopts “Rango” as his moniker, and after befriending the mayor, he is named the Sheriff of Dirt.

As one would expect, things are not at all as they seem. A bank robbery, made easier by Rango’s naivety in interacting with three moles, leads to a town panic when the bank is broken into and the water cooler is missing. Rango becomes the de facto leader of Dirt, which places him in direct odds with the mayor as he attempts to determine the truth of what is really going on.

“Rango” is ambitious and deals with some pretty heady topics for an animated and family marketed film. It also fully embraces the classic gunslinger Westerns from the years gone by. And for younger viewers, it’s refusal to shy away from frequent depictions of guns and gun violence may be fine for some, perhaps even for many families watching the film, but honestly, the incessant and continual gun-related imagery became exhausting. I am far from a prude, admire and like a good Western film, and welcome pretty much any idea and/or vision put forth on screen. I guess attrition simply set in and I grew tired of seeing animal characters (albeit animated ones) gunned down, a drowned and lifeless squirrel, a rattlesnake replacing his rattling tail with a gatling gun and firing off a couple hundred rounds, double-barrel shotguns pointed directly at the viewer, and a battle involving weapon-aided bats, whose riders empty countless scores of bullets at the feared and menacing Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy). In the most irresponsible of moments, a young girl cactus mouse (Abigail Breslin) finds a gun, stares at it, and says…”Ooh, I think there’s a bullet in it!” She then proceeds to play with it until its taken away from her right before she shoots herself in the face. Oh, but it’s just a gun and it’s a cartoon, so there’s nothing to worry about, right?!?! Ugh.

RangoImage1Clearly this is not a film for young children, despite Nickelodeon and Paramount marketing as such. So be warned. Conceptually, the film plays much stronger with teenagers and grown ups. The themes of totalitarianism and government power are intriguing for awhile, until the violence overtakes the message. Topics of land use and development and conservation are introduced but also caught up in the aggression of the piece. Although many movie buffs will undoubtedly cheer when the confounding “Spirit of the West” character arrives, a respectful but rather bizarre tribute to Clint  Eastwood’s iconic “Man With No Name” (voiced by Timothy Olyphant), I simply atrophied at the rousing “there’s a hero in all of us” message I think “Rango” was meaning to hit all along.

Visually, the film is stunning and beautifully detailed. Perhaps the finest compliment I can offer is that Paramount thankfully avoided the 3-D drug everyone is addicted to right now. This film is perhaps the finest argument against 3-D filmmaking. I continue to hold the view that any recent film not named “Avatar” has no purpose in being exhibited in 3-D. “Rango” would suffer tremendously in that presentation.

“Rango”‘s potential was immense and that I was underwhelmed was rather surprising. The voice work is terrific, the films looks outstanding, and the overarching ideas are sound. For me, it just doesn’t cohesively work. I didn’t care about Rango’s quest, I didn’t find him a character I engaged with, and the film never found a voice.

But…my 4-year old remembers that Rango swallowed a fly and gagged. And that the cute cactus mouse plays with guns. And what a joy
that is.

What do you think?

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