I have always liked animated movies. My earliest recollection of an animated film was 101 Dalmatians, which my parents apparently took me so see right before my brother was born. I was not quite four and I have only an image or two in my head, I know the movie more completely from seeing it years later. In high school and college my friends and I would go each year to the Tournee’ of Animation, which would play at the Rialto Theater in South Pasadena. That is where I first saw “Bambi vs. Godzilla”, and I have enjoyed weird animation ever since. This movie definitely falls into the weird category, but not in a way that should put anyone off. It is a very creative and extremely well designed film. It is also a satire, a western, a parody and a joy to behold. There are several sections that seem weary but the quirkiness saves it more often then it dooms it.
Ten years ago, Tom Cruise was the biggest star in the world, which is how he could get away with making fun of himself in an Austin Powers film. In the last ten years however, the crown has been transferred to a handsome, talented actor, who prior to his breakthrough commercial film, was best known as an odd-ball character with discriminating taste in movies. Johnny Depp, has since the first of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, has alternated between big screen popcorn films and smaller movies with a little bit of class to them. I was not a fan of last year’s “Alice in Wonderland” and his movie with Angelina Jolie last December got such bad buzz that I skipped it completely, and that is a clear indicator of something wrong, cause I’ll see almost anything if it has some kind of hook to it. All is forgiven for those last two disasters because this movie is a gem, and it works in large part because Depp embodies the character Rango, even though it is a cartoon.
The movie this most reminded me of was “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. These two films have almost nothing in common except an amazing and unique visual style and charming characters that are sometimes overwhelmed by the weirdness around them. In Nightmare, the biggest element that might put some one off is the music (not me, I love “This is Halloween”), it is sometimes overbearing in how much it takes over the movie. In “Rango” it is not the music but the maniacal comedy that means a frenetic pace and tone. It is interesting to note that both of these projects are the work of Depp’s two biggest collaborators in the last ten years, Tim Burton and Gore Verbinski. This movie could easily be the Burton film that came out of the dark.
Nothing in this movie looks the way other movies have looked, and none of the story seems overly familiar, unless of course you have seen every Clint Eastwood spaghetti western and Chinatown. I don’t think I’m giving too much away to suggest that this movie uses both the western genre and the classic L.A. Noir of Robert Towne’s great screenplay, to create an unusual and interesting cartoon that adults will appreciate more than the kids will. Your kids will still like the movie because of the lovable lizard that Depp inhabits, but adults will adore it for hip references, funny homages, and irreverent use of character and scene. I laughed a lot and missed several jokes because there was so much going on in the movie. I will probably try to see it again, just to admire how clever the bits of business are throughout the tale.
Characters in the movie are often based on well known stereotypes and cliches, but they will not seem that way because of the performances and the way they have been visually rendered on the screen. The voice talent in this movie is deep as well as Depp. Ned Beatty’s take on John Houston in particular is a hoot. I will not spoil the surprise, but Timothy Olyiphant, will tickle you with his version of ,…well I just don’t want to say. Depp is silly and poignant at the same time. This is a performance that is more subtle that the work he did in the Alice film, and the movie is better for it. He can ham it up, but it usually goes better for us when he plays something resembling a real person (or lizard).
Like I said, there are times when the events get a little overblown, but the movie is rescued time and again by the character work that is going on here. The story does not come together as well as a Pixar film would, but the characters are memorable and the performances by the voice actors is solid. The references are pop oriented, but it is more like listening to Dennis Miller riff, then it is a Robin Williams ego stroke. The familiar can be tiresome, but the vaguely familiar can be really rewarding. This is a strong endorsement for this movie, go and see for yourself. If you don’t enjoy it, get your funny bone looked at because there is something wrong with you.