Early on while watching Rango, I thought might be watching a masterpiece. It didn’t last, though. The film begins brilliantly with a group of Mariachi owls presaging the main character’s death, and then we meet our hero (Johnny Depp). He’s in a fish tank, performing with the inanimate objects around him, and desperately lonely. More than anything he’s hungry for a role and an audience. It’s a great set up to the character, and a smart character stroke for a chameleon (acting is blending). But then his life and worldview are literally shattered when it’s revealed he’s in the back of a car that accidentally drops his container off into freeway traffic. He’s whipped around, and such leads to a moment where he flies on the window of Hunter S. Thompson’s car. The lizard is already wearing a Hawaiian shirt and played by Depp, so the allusion has been made, but the reference is then made thuddingly obvious. In this case the reference seems to be the point, though arguably (though it’s made concrete later on), it does establish location – which is near Fear and Loathing.

While stranded and freaked out, an armadillo (Alfredo Molina) shows up and talks about the existential crisis of crossing the street. The armadillo attempts to get to the other side and is made road kill, but lives long enough to suggest that Rango is on a similar existential journey. It’s too much for our lizard – he’s not ready to understand. And such sends him into the desert, only to find that birds are his natural enemy. He barely escapes an attack and falls deep into the desert, where he finds respite in an empty tunnel. In the morning he is sluiced out, only for the water around him to quickly evaporate. There he meets Beans (Isla Fisher), who mentioned that water’s scarce, and the townsfolk think she’s imaging the sluicing. She points him to her town of Dirt.

There the narrative comes into focus. The town is lacking water, and Depp’s character enters a saloon and pretends to be a big shot to impress the locals where he adopts the name Rango, only for a gang of baddies to see through his lies. He’s about to be gunned down when a bird appears. Rango defeats it by accident – to which the mayor (Ned Beatty) and town make Rango their sheriff. Such begins his hero’s journey, and as the town’s hero, his greatest responsibility is to preserve their water (which is kept in a bank). Some moles (headed up by Harry Dean Stanton) want to steal it, and the next day the town’s last bit of water is missing. Such forces Rango to get a posse together and find the moles – not acknowledging he unintentionally helped them. But the town’s water is not just threatened by the thieves, it becomes apparent that other forces – including the venomous Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) – want to do the town and Rango in.

Rango’s a good-not-great film, though I’m sure it will play stronger to children, and is far and away better than – say – Gnomeo and Juliet. I’m also happy to see a film that embraces adventure and western as the narrative for an animated film; it’s never forced kids-y or cutesy. It’s sufficiently entertaining enough, though it does have a second act that goes on too long with a quest that is readily apparent not the final goal, and leads to a situation that puts people in peril stupidly. Or, semi-spoilers, Rango arrests and puts someone in the position of being lynched where Rango knows that it wouldn’t be said person’s fault.

The film’s greatest asset is its visual sense. Whatever criticisms that might be leveled at Verbisnki as a narrative storyteller, there’s no denying he’s got an eye and the animation provided by ILM is breathtaking and thankfully 2-D. As novices to the world of animation, ILM bring something new and exciting to the world of animation – it feels like a new voice, and doesn’t seem as limited to some of the core conceits of the genre. They never feel like they’re just making an animated film. Where Pixar, et al are aping Disney, this is aping Leone and There Will Be Blood, and as a purely visual experience the film is a winner.

On exit, my immediate response was that this was Verbinski’s Kill Bill in the sense that film isn’t just a movie – it’s a movie-movie. To be fair, children will likely not have seen many of the film’s numerous reference points – though perhaps later in life they will be struck by the film’s similarities – but for the cinema fan the references can drown the film. So much of Rango seems borrowed or stolen from other films, and it doesn’t feel like Verbisnki used those quotes as anything but familiarity. With the sluicing and early water issues I found myself thinking “oh, this is like Chinatown,” but the further the film goes on the more the narrative hook seems drawn from the Polanski masterpiece, to which the film makes so explicit I thought two characters might be related as daughter and sister. And where early on a music cue seems a riff on Carter Burwell’s score for Raising Arizona I thought it might a case of Hans Zimmer relying too heavily on the temp track, when the end credits riff on Miserlou it’s undeniable that the film is a homage-a-palooza from the top down. Verbinski even makes room to homage himself. Rango is by nature a poseur and actor, and his unmasking is a necessary plot point (which recalls A Bug’s Life) where the only way for Rango to succeed to is to be himself. But the character has no real name, and there’s no there there. The film – like the character – suggests the mask is just as meaningful as any truth, which is interesting but calorically unsatisfying because the machinations become so labored.

Because – even if it weren’t referential – when the film enters its third act, the road it’s on and the beats that must be hit before the film can end get ticked off in a more perfunctory way than necessary. That’s not to say the oddness doesn’t continue – one of the best and weirdest sequences in the film makes plain the film’s references while also seeming to be a callback to Vincent D’Onfrio’s cameo in Ed Wood. But with such obvious narrative devices it raises a question if whatever oddness and originality there was may be a leftover byproduct of not catching where it all came from.

And the film – while still remaining entertaining all things – is no more or less than a homage piece. Ranking Verbinski’s body of work, it’s fair to say this is a stronger narrative and better than any of the Pirates sequels. But it’s also a kitchen sink “I like this” approach that approximates a lot, but doesn’t do so to become something new – ala the Talking Heads – or offer commentary on the things it’s stealing from – ala Girl Talk. The film is good enough to be frustrated with its evident shortcomings, which will probably be less offensive on multiple viewings.  I thought Verbisnki’s The Weather Man showed someone who had some edge and knew how to at least work with good material. Left to his own devices, Verbinski is clever but appears to be standing on the shoulders of giants. Hopefully this is a goof – a talented goof at that – to shake off the burdens of the Pirates sequels, which seem to lose what made the first so appealing. I have no doubt that Verbisnki is a solid commercial director, but I also get the impression that – like Rango – there may be no “there” there.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars