'Rango' may deserve more than 4 stars

Posted: Thursday, March 10, 2011

R ango” is the first 4-star review I’ve given since starting this column. One star for imagination, one for comedy, one for adventure and another for its great look. This is one of the reasons I’m not always a huge fan of the star-rating system; I think I need some more stars here.

This is an absolutely unique film. The animated animals are a perfect venue for setting modern fast-talk and slapstick against characters who conjure up the nostalgia of what you envisioned a Western town was like as a kid.

It’s obvious a lot of imagination went in to this film. What’s more, they’ve really made something for everyone, as kids will get a thrill from the computer-generated rodents in cowboy hats saving the day and adults will surely be struggling to keep tears back at the jokes. Of course, I’m a supposed grown-up and I think I was thrilled at the action as much as any “youngin’.”

Speaking of humor, director Gore Verbinski is no stranger to that. There’s always been something about his style that makes his films very watchable. Plus, Johnny Depp has always been one of the funniest screen presences around. Once again, he proves he’s better than a comedian; he’s an actor who knows how to be funny. There are way too many stars behind the voices to list them all, but Isla Fisher in particular seems to be at her comedic best whenever supplying a voice rather than a face.

Depp voices a rather neurotic lizard who starts out as a pet in a cage. A fan of the stage, he spends his time acting out scenes with whatever inanimate objects are trapped in there with him. That is, his life has been about pretending until fate destroys that cage and takes the reptile away from his domesticated life for good.

Luckily, this stranding happens early because that’s when the fun really begins. He winds up in an animal-populated desert town right out of the old west. The residents of Dirt haven’t caught on that it’s a modern age. Once there, the naive wannabe thespian jumps at the chance to make his stage-crazed stories a reality, taking on the moniker “Rango” and getting himself selected for sheriff. And when was the last Western you’ve seen where the sheriff had it easy?

What follows is a Western adventure using every depiction that image incurs: chases, gunslingers, the typical saloon of ruffians, the works. I was charmed at how they used these archetypes in a fun way for the animal world yet didn’t seem contrived. Rango finds himself facing off against a large rattlesnake villain with a machine gun for a rattle and leading a posse through caverns after the bank robbers. Best of all, these are influenced by classic characters but aren’t from a cookie cutter script session. Every one of these guys is unique.

The animation is flawless through all of this. Backgrounds are breathtakingly detailed, as well is the close-ups of fur and scales. When the wind blows along Dirt’s streets, you feel it. A scene with Rango and Beans trapped in rising water is one of the most visually inspiring.

An important part of any movie for me is that it take me into the world I am looking at, an especially difficult feat for a Western fantasy. That was a different time we can only imagine (and do) how it was to just walk a street. It probably wasn’t as adventurous or romantic as the movies make it out to be, but that’s beside the point.

The movie is smart, too. Not just in humor and appearance but in how it touches on different levels without pandering. Again, not easy. It even takes some chances at treating viewers like thinkers. There’s one piece of the story with distinct spiritual themes that avoids preaching or religion. It’s so well-played for the characters’ spirituality while being harmless to viewers’ different beliefs, it would be sure to raise protests if this were a franchise film. It already did when some people found out there was smoking in a Western.

“Rango” certainly isn’t the first animated film to appeal to adults as much as kids. We can only hope it will inspire more of the same from more studios. This animated vision is a joy to watch from beginning to end. I hope the younger viewer decide to do what I did when seeing things like this as a kid: to go out and write my own tall tales.

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