“There’s no place for the gunslinger anymore. We’re civilized now.” These words are spoken by the mayor of the town of Dirt to Rango, the town’s sheriff and film’s namesake (voiced by Johnny Depp). While it may be true that Westerns are a genre of the past, there’s certainly still a place for them in Hollywood, as demonstrated by recent successes like “No Country For Old Men” and “True Grit.” “Rango,” directed by Gore Verbinski, is a parody of this genre that seems intent on diminishing the value of the Western and its cinematic traditions—complete with a melodramatic mariachi band, incompetent bandits, and silly square dance rituals. But despite all of its mockery and self-deprecation, “Rango” is a charming film that reflects only positively on the genre that gave it birth.
The movie’s opening introduces an as-of-yet unnamed protagonist—a pet lizard in a fish tank with a flair for the theatric. In a most amusing vocal performance by Johnny Depp, the lizard acts out imagined dramas alongside a dead insect and wind-up goldfish, with Depp providing all the voices and personalities. But the lizard soon finds himself embroiled in a real-life adventure when he is accidentally abandoned by his owners in the desert, and left to fend for himself with only the Hawaiian tee on his back.
The lizard makes it to the town of Dirt, where trouble is brewing—the water supply is running out, and the all-too-aptly named town is overrun by corruption and lawlessness. Eager to carve out an identity for himself and establish his acting bona fides, the lizard invents a backstory in which he is a fearless hero from the deep west named “Rango.” After he accidentally slays the town’s feared scourge—a hawk—he becomes revered by the townspeople and earns the sheriff badge.
With a motley crew of companions, newly christened Sheriff Rango embarks on a quest for some desperately needed water for the town. What follows is delightful parody of the Western canon, ably executed by Depp, and the ensuing comic mischief and genre impiety are strongly evocative of another convention-busting comedy collaboration of Depp and Verbinski—“Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.”
Rango soon finds his chief nemesis to be the town’s mayor (Ned Beatty), a wizened tortoise in a wheelchair whose dialogue is suspiciously Obama-esque. “[The people of Dirt] believe that tomorrow will be better,” he tells Rango. “They believe in you.” Of course, he’s a crook—not unlike Beatty’s deceptively wholesome Lotso character from another animated dramedy, “Toy Story 3”—and Rango spends the rest of the movie uncovering his secrets and combating his corruption.
Throughout this cartoonish jaunt, the strength of “Rango” lies in its self-awareness and self-conscious parody. Most amusingly, the film’s Western storyline is framed for the audience by an owl mariachi band with thick Spanish accents. The group provides the film’s faux-outback soundtrack—in reality composed by Hans Zimmer—and their absurd commentary throughout the movie is a constant reminder that we are sitting in a theater, watching a Western comedy narrated by owls. In this fashion, “Rango” proudly revels in its absurdity.
Like many animated flicks, “Rango” relies heavily on allusions to outside culture—but unlike those in many other contemporary animated features, these references enhance rather than overwhelm the film’s satire. Rango and his compadres ride off into the desert Monty Python style, complete with melodramatic strings as musical backing. There is a play within a play, nodding to Shakespeare, and a flight sequence—with bats—cleverly reminiscent of World War II fighter flicks. And of course, an obligatory Clint Eastwood lookalike a la “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” shows up late in the film to impart some inspirational words to the young hero.
When “Rango” begins to drag, as it does toward story’s end, it makes up for its narrative shortcoming with its crisp, gorgeous visuals. Indeed, the film’s meticulous attention to detail—from rotating shards of broken glass bottles hanging outside saloons to the gentle sliding of the desert sand—is a tribute to its CG artists at Industrial Light and Magic, for whom “Rango” is the first fully animated feature.
With its persistent self-deprecation and swipes at its own seriousness, “Rango” has the feel of a film with simple, unoriginal intentions—a typical children’s comedy marketed to the usual target audience, with colorful visuals for the kids and cultural asides for their parents. But the film’s gags and charms end up being more than the ostensible sum of the parts. Sheriff Rango, too, starts out with few real aspirations, initially stumbling through the desert to act out a personal Western fantasy, while lacking any genuine identity or commitments of his own. But like its eponymous hero, “Rango” creates an identity out of the myths and legends of the past, and soon becomes an unwitting Western classic itself.