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Rango Wrangles Original Concepts and Recycled Conventions Into One Decent Rodeo

A few weekends ago, my friends and I decided to make a spontaneous trip to the cinema after being out and about and at a loss to kill time. It was one of those trips where you walk in to find out what's playing and choose something that will not entail a long wait for the movie to start. The consensus we landed on was Rango, a short animation, the first to be created by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, and with a title character, a chameleon, voiced by Johnny Depp. It was a promising selection for a random and spontaneous afternoon of random and spontaneous events, and, for the most part, it lived up to its promise.

Rango (Depp) is a chameleon that experiences a deeply existential crisis amidst a series of unexpected adventures. Though he aspires to find meaning through performance for the oddities in his terrarium, his life is changed when his habitat falls from his owner's car on a desert highway, leaving him stranded and parched. In his frantic assessment of his new lot, he encounters an armadillo named Roadkill (Alfred Molina), who is seeking a mystical Spirit of the West and who provides a few cryptic quips to advise Rango on how to solve his particular dilemma, until matters worsen, and a hawk chases Rango across the desert in its search for food. After narrowly escaping the clutches of this hawk, Rango meets an iguana named Beans (Isla Fisher), a ranger with a penchant for odd freezes (almost like seizures), who escorts Rango back to Dirt, an Old West town populated by desert animals. The currency of import there is water, and there is a severe shortage, discovered by Beans when she sees that the bank reserves are low. Rango tries to fit in, using his gift for performance to masquerade as a ruthless drifter, brave and deadly, and when he manages, by luck, to kill the hawk, who tracks him to this town, the town's residents celebrate and hold Rango up to be a hero while the Mayor (Ned Beatty) appoints him to be sheriff. Beans demands that Rango investigate the water shortage, and Rango is game, until that night and in his zeal to please his new town, he inadvertently provides some mole robbers with the location of the bank vault and the tools to break into it. Rango must organize an expedition to recover the water while keeping a low profile, but several discoveries are made along the way, not the least of which includes Rango's discovery of his inner muster.

Rango is an odd but workable mix of old and new. It's clear that this movie draws on recycled themes, not the least of which include the outsider's personal journey toward self discovery and a sense of belonging. There is a heaping helping of slapstick and typical cartoon humor that is meant to appeal to children of all ages, and these conventions tend to restrain and moderate some of Rango's more earnest and sincere attempts at risk and originality. Also, and perhaps unsurprisingly given the film's star and director Gore Verbinski, the film appears to borrow liberally from the Pirates of the Caribbean series; in many ways, the title chameleon channels Captain Jack Sparrow in speech and in mannerisms, even if he is ultimately less drunk on rum (and less concerned with saving his own arse) in the process.

Yet, Rango's undeniable charm stems from the fact that the film and its creators were clearly aiming to make something different from the norm, and this quality, this sensibility, ostensibly contributes to the movie's considerable appeal. Rango is a character of decidedly mature meditations. He babbles, sometimes incoherently and with Captain Jack's particular flair, but always with purpose and wonder as to the meaning of his own existence. Dirt's denizens also bear witness to a decidedly grown-up problem: an economic crisis, a financial downfall, brought on by corruption at the hands of unexpected sources. The predominant sense of humor, catalyzed by Rango's ramblings, is also of a rather adult disposition. For this reason, it would be rather surprising to find children much interested in this film when some of the themes and jokes would no doubt sail far over their heads. In fact, in the movie theater my friends and I were in, there was very little laughter from anyone under 12, and most of the laughter originated from my friends and me. In fact, the more rudimentary and traditional cartoon humor is not sufficient to downplay some of the more sophisticated elements of the film.

Rango also boasts a fresh and new-looking visual palette that makes it appear different from other CGI-based animation. The colors, outlines, and details of background and forefront are vibrantly rendered and are eye-popping, from the Rango's parched reptilian skin (or is he an amphibian?) to the soft, cuddly feathers of the hilarious chorus of owl mariachi players that narrate the proceedings to the dusty desert surrounds. There is a three-dimensional quality even to the two-dimensional presentation; some parts of the action seem as real as if the characters engaging in the action were not cartoons. I think ILM has a bright future in animation, so long as the company continues to expand its efforts in this area.

Suffice it to say, Rango is highly entertaining, or, at least it would be for adults who are apt to understand what they're seeing and hearing. The story is original, fresh, and quite clever; the character himself is creative, and Depp's vocal performance underscores even as it inspires that creativity. There are also some lovely winks and nods to the formulas and traditions of the western genre, included in a deferential rather than mocking manner. Thus, I think Rango deserves a 7.5 on the patented ratings scale for being between shaky but entertaining and having minor flaws but being very good, for the film's detractions might be a bit more than minor, but the film really is hilarious in the end. At least, I thought so: I loved the mariachi band, Rango's more esoteric ramblings, and a side-splitting conversation the posse (as organized by Rango to root out the mole robbers) has around a campfire during one night of their search. To this end, I think Rango also might pass the test. I love dreamy Johnny Depp, as you might know, but I also believe that the film would hold up well to repeat viewings. In fact, I'm guessing jokes and visual details might have been missed the first time around because the energy and pacing of the film is so frenetic, even unexpected, as it is effective. Rango is a rip-roaring good time, at any rate, so long as you're over a certain age, but hey, who says cartoons are just for kids?

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