Rango Makes Jokes Your Kids Won’t Get (Maybe That Doesn’t Matter)

Up until now, I’ve made no secret of my preference for Pixar films over those by Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox. Now Industrial Light & Magic (the Star Wars people) has submitted a debut entry which makes a powerful argument on its behalf. Rango is sublime entertainment and announces ILM as a force to be reckoned with in the CGI movie market.

My bias toward Pixar mostly has to do with the timeless quality of their movies: they focus exclusively on universal themes of friendship, parenting, love, and loss and scrupulously eschew pop culture references. Even the best Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox films rely to some extent on modern references which end up dating them. I re-watched Shrek 2 recently and was struck by how many of its jokes probably won’t make sense to anybody ten years from now (such as a chase scene with Shrek riding on a white bronco). With Rango, ILM has taken another approach which is to pay homage to spaghetti westerns — or in other words make really old pop culture references — while still moving the plot along with enough verve and energy to keep people entertained if they don’t catch the jokes. I’m no connoisseur of the western genre, but I caught scenes which were clearly paying homage to High Noon, the Man With No Name trilogy, and legendary villain actor Lee Van Cleef not to mention an extended riff on the Flight of the Valkyries segment in Apocalypse Now. There’s a scene in which the main character imitates various stereotypical walks seen in a western town which pretty much sums up the whole movie. Even the musical cues are western staples!

In fact, Rango borders on unsuitable for small children. Not only will they miss many of the references, there are also some pretty dark themes. Several characters die (one of them on screen), the plot has to do with stealing water in order to buy up real estate, and some of the characters are definitely drinking alcohol. There’s also a Greek chorus of mariachi owls who constantly predict the main character’s death and otherwise demolish the fourth wall. On the other hand, none of the kids in the audience with me were squirming, so what do I know?

It probably helps that the broad strokes of the plot are familiar: Rango arrives in town, gains fame through sheer luck, is eventually exposed as a fraud and forced into exile, then returns to save the day. Children are familiar enough with this formula that they probably don’t mind dialogue that often flies over their heads. Said dialogue is a treat for the adults in the audience, though. The main character is voiced with flair by Johnny Depp (sounding absolutely nothing like Captain Jack Sparrow) who successfully conveys the impression of one who can just barely talk faster than the situation he’s gotten himself into. Solid supporting work is provided by a cast of names you may know but probably won’t recognize by voice including Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, and Alfred Molina. The only voice I picked up on was Ned Beatty since I had recently watched Toy Story 3 again.

Even if the story and acting wasn’t so good, Rango would be worth seeing for its visual splendor. The level of detail in the characters, some of whom are quite furry, is extraordinary. The aforementioned mariachi owls can be seen playing their instruments correctly — the camera even zooms in on their “fingers” so that you can watch. The background scenes are even more amazing, often becoming so photorealistic that I would have been fooled if there hadn’t been a walking, talking lizard in the foreground. One scene that stood out to me showed a closeup of sand blowing off a badge. The amount of processing power required to render each grain of sand flying away must have been immense, and it was almost as if ILM was daring me to pick out the flaws. There is some dissonance in seeing the cartoon antics of talking animals running around on scenery that looks for all the world like it was filmed with a traditional camera, but not as much as you would think. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is ILM after all. But it is still nice to see that they have once again set the standard for CGI.

Oh, and it’s not in 3D. This is a good thing. The movie takes place mostly in desert settings, and while the colors are bright on a movie screen, the dimness associated with 3D would have killed a lot of the appeal.

I’m not sure why Rango didn’t come out in the summer, but I’m glad it was released when it did. After everything else I’ve watched, Rango is still the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. If it’s still playing in a theater near you, skip Rio and go back to Rango.