The Good, the Bad, and the Animated
"Rango" (opening March 4 throughout San Diego) serves up a kind of animated spaghetti western with Johnny Depp as the wannabe hero.
"Rango" begins with a similar feel to "Toy Story" as the main character Rango (Johnny Depp), a chameleon, plays with the toys in his lizard aquarium. Rango imagines himself in all sorts of scenarios and adventures until a bump in the road sends his tank flying out the back of his owner's car. Now Rango's about to have a real adventure out in the desert. He soon finds himself in a town going dry. Bandits and corrupt official are also involved as this film mixes Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns with "Chinatown" and "Toy Story."
The film reunites director Gore Verbinski with star Johnny Depp, and just as with their "Pirates of the Caribbean" collaboration it begins very promisingly before descending into a chaotic mess.
The thing that's so infuriating about "Rango" is that it does enough things right that you can see the potential for a much better film than you end up getting. First of all let me say that "Rango" has some of the most delightful and impressive animation I have seen in a long time. The colors, textures, and movement of the characters are all wonderful. This is the first American animated film in a while where I have really enjoyed the animation and been charmed by it. Mercifully, it was not in 3D but the CGI work was so good that it created a fully three-dimensional world. The filmmakers and animators also had fun. So we have an armadillo that pays tribute to Don Quixote, a quick nod to "Fear and Loathing" (in which Depp had played the Hunter S. Thompson alter ego), and a character that looks like a grizzled (yes even more grizzled) version of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name. The facial expressions are also well rendered. So visually, "Rango" completely pulled me into its world of lizards, rodents, bats, and insects.
Unfortunately, writer-director Verbinski and co-writer John Logan fail to deliver a script that can sustain a whole film. They don't know if they want to make a cute kids film or a savvy adult animation. They rip off westerns, spaghetti westerns, film noir, and Hollywood action films but without any sense of what it is that they really want to create. At one point the action got so out of hand and chaotic that I thought the giant mechanical spider from Will Smith's "Wild Wild West" debacle was going to enter the fray. Part of the problem is that because the story is so unfocused, the characters never get a chance to develop much. So while the animation engages us the characters themselves rarely do.
I came out of "Rango" wishing I could like it more because there was so much potential. Depp, as he proved in "Corpse Bride," is adept at voicing characters. The film also has the great vocal talents of Ray Winstone, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Alfred Molina, Ned Beatty, and Timothy Olyphant (doing a spot on Eastwood). But sadly they are not all put to good use. Nighy, who I had imagined could do such a slimy, slithery voice for the snake villain, ends up sounding bland and distinctly not like himself. And Olyphant's great Eastwood take is wasted on a character that fails to deliver any good lines. The character is a direct rip-off of Eastwood's Man with No Name from Leone's Italian westerns but based on what the character says and does it seems like Verbinski has no clue what that iconic character is all about. Again, unfulfilled potential.
"Rango" (rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking… and yes that's animated smoking folks!) with all its flaws and disappointments is still probably better than the other animated crap coming out of Hollywood. It's just so frustrating when a film does some things so well but fails to deliver completely.
Companion viewing: "Corpse Bride," "Coraline," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"