The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Johnny Depp is the lizard king in Rango.

Few things make me happier than being pleasantly surprised by a movie, and Rango represents the biggest pleasant surprise I've had in quite a while. Ignore the horrible trailer and TV ads; they convey the offbeat tone, but never come close to capturing the fact that it's a great, goofy homage to classic Westerns. When you get right down to it, Rango is like Chinatown meets A Fistful of Dollars meets a Geico commercial. And it's totally awesome.

Johnny Depp provides the voice of the title character, someone's pet lizard who falls off the back of a truck in the middle of a desert highway. He makes his way to a small town known as Dirt, a place populated by other desert animals. The town's residents are a rough-and-tumble breed, so he pretends to be a fierce gunslinger in order to fit in. That leads the tortoise mayor (Ned Beatty) to appoint Rango sheriff. It soon comes to light that Dirt is in the middle of a serious drought, its back-up water supply quickly dwindling to nothing. At first, Rango thinks robbers are stealing it, but eventually his suspicions lead him to believe that someone wants to control the water supply to gain power. Following the path leads him to great danger, including a confrontation with Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), a slithery villain with a Gatling gun tail who has been terrorizing Dirt.

There are two things that really struck me about Rango. One is that it beautifully and lovingly tweaks all the familiar tropes of the Western genre. The mysterious loner coming to town and defeating the resident villain is a traditional element of the genre. Here, the loner is a lizard just pretending to be a badass, and the villain is literally a snake. Saloon scenes, campfire scenes, and colorful townsfolk are all accounted for, yet presented with oddball humor that subverts what you expect from such standards. Individual sequences and images scattered throughout are intentionally reminiscent of famous pictures like High Noon and Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns. (Another movie, a non-Western that also starred Depp, is also hilariously referenced in the film's opening minutes.) So much of the joy in Rango comes from recognizing specific genre elements, then seeing how the story spins them off in unique directions.

Despite all this, the movie isn't a Naked Gun-style parody, constantly calling attention to its own jokes. You could argue (successfully) that it is an authentic Western, albeit one populated with desert animals and in possession of a deliriously off-the-wall sensibility. Rango knows, understands, and appreciates the various things that go into making a Western, and assembles them in a manner that is respectfully silly. Consequently, you can enjoy it on multiple levels. As much as I laughed, I also found myself caring about whether the titular lizard can solve the mystery of the vanishing water supply.

The other thing that struck me is that Rango is one of the few animated features to bear the distinct stamp of its director, Gore Verbinski. Most animated movies – even the best ones – seem made by committee, designed very specifically to appeal to kids. Verbinski obviously couldn't care less about that stuff. Children may like it, but Rango is geared just as much, if not more, toward adults. The director started out making visually inventive, conceptually risky movies such as The Ring, Mouse Hunt, and The Weather Man before finding commercial success with the mainstream Pirates of the Caribbean pictures. Tackling the animation field for the first time, he re-embraces his sense of play,. Everything from the framing of images, to the eccentric staging of action, to the syncopated delivery of the jokes goes against the grain. I was reminded of the work of Hayao Miyazaki, the famed Japanese animator of Spirited Away and Ponyo, in that Verbinski clearly feels a passion for the material, puts his own distinct stamp on it, then trusts the audience to follow along.

This may be the best-looking animated film I've ever seen...or maybe it just seems that way because it is so different from any other. Verbinski embraces the dirty, dusty feel of the Western; it's The Wild Bunch with lizards and reptiles instead of people. That effect, rendered in intricately detailed CGI, is quite striking. Industrial Light and Magic did the animation. I strongly suspect the film will be nominated for Best Animated Feature at next year's Oscars.

Rango made me shake my head a lot, not in frustration, but in astonishment at how exactingly it refracted the structure of classic Westerns through a whole new prism. This is not a “Western with lizards,” but rather a way of celebrating a beloved style of storytelling by coming at it from the sides. Every frame is a delight, both in terms of the gorgeous animation and the specificity of the references. And in Rango, Johnny Depp finds a character who deserves to stand alongside Hunter S. Thompson, Ed Wood, Capt. Jack Sparrow, and Edward Scissorhands. Yeah, this one is a winner all around.

( out of four)

Rango is rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.