I’ll be completely honest, I never liked the majority of non-Pixar animated films. Although the box-office returns on some of those films were astronomical, I found that most of them were just trying too hard to compete with Pixar. Most of them had celebrity voice casts that just didn’t understand how to use such foreign concepts as “tone of voice,” “subtlety” and “human emotion” in a medium where you can’t see their faces. However, when I first saw a trailer for “Rango,” my interest was piqued. So, when I finally sat down to watch “Rango” (in a packed theater, no less), I was ready to be wowed. For the most part, it didn’t disappoint.
The film, directed by Gore Verbinski (director of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy) and animated by Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), is a tale that concerns a small pet chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) that gets stranded in the middle of the Nevada desert after a strange highway mishap. Separated from his owners and severely dehydrated, he must strike out on his own. Trouble is, he doesn’t quite know how.
After a day or so of wandering through the desert and suffering from heat-induced hallucinations (yes, there is a “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” joke here, but the younger kids likely won’t understand it), he stumbles across the small western town called Dirt. The town, which would be right at home in a spaghetti western, is populated with all manner of desert creatures, from owls and Gila Monsters, to snakes, frogs, roadrunners and armadillos.
Seeking to make a name for himself and to satisfy his inner performance artist, our protagonist starts to call himself Rango, and characterizes himself as the toughest thing in the West. The townspeople start to believe his tall tale, and after a mishap that kills a giant eagle (one of the predators of the townsfolk), Rango is made sheriff. This leads to more trouble as Dirt is going through a severe drought. When the water supply is stolen by bandits, the townspeople look to Rango to help get it back, unaware that he has absolutely no idea what he’s doing.
What struck me about this film was the animation and character design. Simply put, it’s breathtaking when you first lay eyes on it. ILM has created a world that looks dirty, gritty and lived-in, not unlike a real western. Everything on screen simply pops with insane levels of detail. Character design is also top-notch here, as the denizens of Dirt are about as far away from cute and cuddly as possible. What really separates “Rango” from the pack of non-Pixar films is the attention paid to story and character, although it’s not as emotionally captivating as some of Pixar’s work. The refusal to overstuff the film with A-list names also works in the film’s favor, as voices here are chosen due to how well an actor can perform the scenes, rather than just name recognition alone.
“Rango” is not really a film intended for younger kids, as there are some elements of the film that some parents might object to, such as smoking, drinking, shooting and the occasional low-level swearing. Additionally, some characters might be too intense for younger viewers (chief among them being the film’s main villain, Rattlesnake Jake, voiced by Bill Nighy). Some parents might find this offensive to kids.
There are some sore spots to the film, however. A few of the jokes, especially the ones midway through the film, don’t work very well. Some of the more interesting townspeople aren’t as well developed character-wise as I’d like, especially since we’re supposed to feel sympathy for them later in the film.
Although these faults are a bit annoying, it shouldn’t detract from the movie as a whole. The film is further proof, at least for me, that animated films can appeal to both kids and adults in a smart and non-pandering way. Simply put, “Rango” is one of the best animated films of the year, and is more than worth the price of admission.