I love it when a movie surprises me. God help me, I love it more than life itself. You’re having a bad day, you’re going off four hours sleep, you’re obligated to see a movie that you’re pretty sure will be mediocre at best — and then BAM, you’re knocked flat on your ass by a truly transportive movie experience that makes you visibly giddy with excitement. No sir, there’s nothing in the world quite like it.
The particular film in question is “Rango,” which I had pegged as a low-rent “Yojimbo” homage that might be good for a few disposable laughs but not much else. I was way off, as it turns out. Easily the best and most genuinely, effortlessly funny non-Pixar animated film since “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Rango” also represents a remarkable achievement in modern computer animation. Presented exclusively in “2D,” the film bursts with eye-popping landscapes and nuanced character designs — again, perhaps the most impressive I’ve seen in a non-Pixar animated production.
A heady, rollicking mix of sophisticated visuals and sharp, adult-oriented writing, “Rango” has immediately situated itself as one of the year’s very best films. Skip the dreadful-looking “Mars Needs Women” (or whatever that infernal thing is called), and take the kids to this one instead. I guarantee you’ll have at least 17 times more fun than them — and they’ll have a blast.
★★★★ (out of four)
2011, Gore Verbinski, U.S., PG
Imagine if Quentin Tarantino decided to make a Western-themed, animal-populated, animated reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” by way of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what “Rango” is all about. Like a kiddie-friendly version of “Pulp Fiction,” the movie approaches its story from a deep-meta, borderline-postmodern perspective, and successfully filters an entire genre through the lens of pop consumerism. This is the Western reinvented as interactive entertainment, tailored to an audience that has been inundated since birth by the romantic myths of pop culture. Quite literally, “Rango” is a film in which its hero is playing the good guy in his own private movie.
The film is filled — positively brimming — with Tarantino-style pop culture references, from the aforementioned “Yojimbo” and “Chinatown” (from which “Rango” lifts key plot points, specific lines of dialogue and even a character profile — how cool is that?) to “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Searchers,” “The Road Warrior” and, of course, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” just to name a few. However, these are not empty references, as in “Epic Movie” and “Meet the Spartans” and the like, where the viewer is supposed to laugh just because they recognize the reference, even if no joke is apparent (“Hurrhurrhurr ... I saw that movie!” *drool*). In true Tarantino fashion, the references are used with style and purpose, and they all have a specific effect that elevates the material.
When we first meet our reptilian hero (voiced by Johnny Depp, in one of his better performances), he’s a simple city lizard who has led an extraordinarily sheltered life as a pet in his glass aquarium, entertaining himself by staging imaginary film shoots and elaborate theatrical productions with his inanimate-object “friends.” After an incident on the highway leaves him stranded in the middle of the desert with no food, no water and no idea what to do, he follows the philosophical advice of a sage-like armadillo (shades of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” here, or am I reaching?) and follows his shadow to the nearest town. This “town” turns out to be nothing of the sort, but rather a ragtag collection of desperate, destitute animals who are suffering from a recent drought. Figuring this to be a great opportunity to live the high life as a Western hero, he reinvents himself as Rango, legendary gunslinger and protector of the innocent.
Rango soon finds himself in over his head as he must battle a hawk, rattlesnake and a horde of moles to protect the town’s dwindling water supply, and Depp does a fine job of keeping this character engaging and sympathetic through all his (admittedly self-inflicted) trials and tribulations. He’s helped along by a stellar supporting cast that includes Isla Fisher as Beans, Rango’s fellow-lizard love interest; Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake, who’s like a Sergio Leone-inspired amalgam of Lee Van Cleef’s character from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and Henry Fonda’s cold-as-ice killer from “Once Upon a Time in the West”; and Ned Beatty as the town mayor, who looks, sounds and acts suspiciously like John Huston’s villainous Noah Cross from “Chinatown” (minus the incest, natch).
By any measure, “Rango” is an exemplary movie, and well worth your time and money. But when you consider that this is a family film — and thus belongs to a treacherous genre that is comprised of 95 percent pure, unmitigated crap — this achievement seems all the more amazing. So for God’s sake, seize this opportunity to expose you children to something that won’t make them stupid and developmentally stunted, as the vast majority of “family movies” are liable to do. Besides, flicks that are truly “fun for the whole family” are in depressingly short supply these days — especially ones that offer a nice side of genre deconstruction to go along with all the talking animals.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.