PG, 3.5 stars
Influenced by Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this Johnny Depp film is one weird-ass flick, and a feast for the eyes and ears.
What a weird-ass movie. Rango, a computer-animated trek/western, appears to be strongly influenced by the hallucinatory world laid out in gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Johnny Depp provides the voice for the lead character, a freaked-out lizard dressed in a Hawaiian shirt that looks like he stepped out of a Ralph Steadman illustration for a Thompson article. Or the 1998 movie version of the book, which starred Depp as Thompson. Come to think of it, the lizard, with his big, creepy bug-eyes and neck that juts out at odd angles, looks a lot like the warped image of Thompson on the posters for the movie.
Hell, an animated version of Thompson makes a cameo appearance in his Fear and Loathing persona of Raoul Duke, when the lizard, with a happy face antenna ball stuck on his head, splats onto the windshield of a car driven by Duke, complete with traveling partner Dr. Gonzo sprawled in the back seat.
Pretty cool, eh? Maybe for me and a lot of you, maybe not for people expecting a zippy, warm-hearted animated comedy western. Make no mistake, Rango is not a family-friendly film. It doesn't go out of its way to be overtly offensive, but there's no getting around the fact that these critters are wandering pretty close to the abyss and are in no mood to babysit anyone's children.
Director and co-writer Gore Verbinski also directed the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies and Rango demonstrates the filmmaker's tendency to go on tangents. The film starts off squirrelly and slow, taking its own sweet time before finally getting to the dusty western town where the storyline promoted in the TV ads kicks into gear. There are few concessions made for audience members. While the characters are interesting, they aren't particularly likable. Guarded and ornery is more like it. Visually, the movie is a feast – bright and clear with incredibly-detailed animation by Industrial Light and Magic – their first animated feature. Truth be told, the animation may be too detailed – some of the critters are textured so dramatically that it's hard to discern their features.
After a brief sequence establishing the lizard's imagination and his estrangement from others, the film breaks into two pieces: the surreal desert quest and the expected comic western. The surreal desert quest features an armadillo spirit guide (Alfred Molina), an appearance by a Clint Eastwood spaghetti-western-era-styled "Spirit of the West" (Timothy Olyphant), and an abundance of existential meandering.
The expected comic western includes lots of slapstick, which tempers the crankiness a little. Nods and winks to other movies abound. This is the crowd-pleasing section of the movie, though it's hard to completely surrender to the humor when the characters are dying of thirst. Citizens of the little town called Dirt include earthy potential romantic interest Beans (Isla Fisher), a greedy mayor (Ned Beatty) and a host of colorful western types. The voice cast also includes Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton and Ray Winstone).
Aside from the aforementioned problem with overdone character textures, Rango is a feast for the eyes and the ears, with cinematographer Roger Deakins helping insure that the desert looks sufficiently epic and intimidating, while Hans Zimmer makes sure the spaghetti-western score is cooked al dente. Rango would have been better served with a tighter script and a little more heart, but if you're as big a fan of hallucinatory eccentricity as I am, you're in for a treat. A weird-ass, occasionally off-putting treat, but a treat nonetheless.