Screen Rant's Ben Kendrick reviews Rango
Rango, the latest animated release from Nickelodeon Movies is also Gore Verbinski’s first film since concluding his Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy in 2007 with the underwhelming At World’s End. Through his work on the Pirates films, Verbinski earned positive buzz for his complicated, but still light-hearted, action set-pieces – as well as a reputation for (some misguided) attempts at simultaneously injecting darker themes and convoluted philosophical ideas into films that were intended as summer popcorn flicks.
Does Verbinski’s CGI animated feature Rango, about a thrill-seeking anthropomorphic chameleon in the prairie town of Dirt, play to the director’s strengths - or does the film juggle too many elements to offer people of all ages a meaningful story as well as a guilt-free action-comedy?
As in Verbinski’s prior work, Rango the movie, much like Rango the character, struggles with a significant identity crisis. Instead of blending in – and serving up an exciting kids movie peppered with adult humor and pop culture references, Rango is brazenly unapologetic for the various tones and emotional complexities it explores. To an extent, the frantic back and forth from slapstick humor (there’s even a prostate exam reference) to meditations on identity (punctuated by the Spirit of the West) actually makes Rango unique, and somewhat special, in the current animated film landscape (which can sometimes take itself too seriously) – but it also compromises the overall movie-going experience with too much disjointedness.
If you’re unfamiliar with the film, here’s the synopsis:
The story follows the comical, transformative journey of Rango (Depp), a sheltered chameleon living as an ordinary family pet, while facing a major identity crisis. After all, how high can you aim when your whole purpose in life is to blend in? When Rango accidentally winds up in the gritty, gun-slinging town of Dirt – a lawless outpost populated by the desert’s most wily and whimsical creatures – the less-than-courageous lizard suddenly finds he stands out. Welcomed as the last hope the town has been waiting for, new Sheriff Rango is forced to play his new role to the hilt... until, in a blaze of action-packed situations and encounters with outrageous characters, Rango starts to become the hero he once only pretended to be.
After spending close to eight years of his life on the Pirates trilogy, it’s no surprise that Verbinski approached Johnny Depp to voice the part of the titular character, Rango.
Depp’s performance is solid, as usual - but lacks the kind of energy and charm that audiences associate with the actor’s brand. Whether the result of John Logan’s (somewhat funny) script, the limitations of feature animation, or a reptilian CGI model that can’t successfully convey the subtleties of an actor like Depp, the performance is competent (in delivery and execution) but doesn’t make Rango a particularly vibrant character. Sure he’s a well-meaning everyman that gets in over his head – but a capable vocal performer and beautiful CGI animation (by Industrial Light and Magic, no less) doesn’t automatically translate into a fully formed, or memorable, digital character.
One of the biggest draw-backs that prevents Rango (as well as the character) from reaching its potential is the film’s on-the-nose reliance on Western character tropes. Instead of developing a unique take on traditional Western characters by capitalizing on the source material while also striving for a vibrant supporting cast, the secondary players in Rango are mostly flat cliches – wrapped up in animal skin. Films like Up, How to Train Your Dragon, and Toy Story 3 have proven that an animated feature is capable of providing audiences with character-driven stories that offer genuinely funny and surprising moments from seemingly generic tropes – ex. Ken in Toy Story 3 is a fashionista.
However, in Rango, the animal characters are even less interesting than what you might see in a regular spaghetti Western – a crotchety old timer and business man (not to mention desert tortoise) and a brave but silent native of the West (presented as a Chihuahuan Raven) - to name a few.
Aside from the visually striking character designs, the film doesn’t really take advantage of the fantasy setting – none of the animals really make use of their beastly origins, the citizens of Dirt live in human-like homes, and despite the film’s message about man’s influence on nature – the two don’t actually interact in any compelling way. As a result, there aren’t many surprises – as if the audience is merely watching a generic western film with animals superimposed over physical human actors.
Verbinski further attempts to riff on the Western template by including several metaphysical scenes where Rango ruminates on the meaning of destiny, identity, and the Spirit of the West. The sequences are visually striking but don’t add much to the story – much like the bizarre stone/crab scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End – proving that Verbinski hasn’t quite learned to balance his own proclivity for injecting philosophical fluff into popcorn films that people (young people, especially) just want to get lost in. As a result, for a film predominantly aimed at children, Rango spends too much time attempting to be profound and not enough time being entertaining.
That said, despite the film’s rambling philosophies and lackluster characters, Rango is still an engaging movie – and offers a number of Verbinski’s trademark action/comedy set-pieces, including an intriguing spin on the traditional stage-coach chase – i.e. pursued by a swarm of bats carrying gatling gun-toting red neck moles. There are also plenty of visual gags for younger viewers to enjoy (Rango burping fire in the face of gila monster, Bad Bill) - as well as a few brief respites of adult humor for parents. However, the most memorable aspect of the film has nothing to do with script or story, but the fact that ILM (visual effects firm Industrial Light & Magic) has succeeded in creating some of the animated genre’s most compelling visuals to date.
In addition to anthropomorphic characters, Rango has quite a bit in common with Pixar’s second feature-film A Bug’s Life – often considered, by comparison, one of the studio’s weakest films (even though it was still a critical and commercial success). There’s no doubt that Rango is a solid animated feature; however, aside from the improved CGI effects, it’s as if the film was produced in the early days of computer animated features – when the bar was a bit lower and teams like Pixar and DreamWorks had yet to master utilizing digital technology to tell heart-felt and character-driven stories in fun and fascinating fantasy settings. As a result, much like the characters in Rango, no matter how competent its various parts, the completed film comes up short in our rapidly changing times.
If you’re still on the fence about Rango, check out the trailer below:
Rango is now playing in wide release.