A jumbled mess

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

As a family demographic product, Rango has a million selling points, among them an unusually strong voice cast headed by Johnny Depp in tremulous-aesthete mode, a popular live-action director making his feature animation debut, and a twist on a genre temporarily back in vogue, thanks to True Grit.

It is, for what it is, a work of considerable care and craft.

And it’s completely soulless. I may be in the minority. But seeing this sour riff on everything from Cat Ballou to Chinatown to The Shakiest Gun in the West, with a big suburban preview audience, was instructive. Not much laughter.

Moans and sobs of pre-teen fright whenever Rattlesnake Jake slithered into view, threatening murder. Any one crowd’s response to any movie may not be indicative; nonetheless the audience’s mood seemed in sync with my own. The best contemporary animation, from Pixar to (occasionally) DreamWorks, works for various ages in varying ways. Rango, written in a spirit of strained homage by John Logan and directed by Gore Verbinski (of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), seems to be made for an audience of jaded Sergio Leone fanatics.

Too bad, because the premise isn’t bad. A terrarium-confined chameleon finds himself suddenly free but lost in the Mohave Desert, guided by a Quixote-like armadillo toward his destiny. This involves becoming the new sheriff of a miserable town called Dirt, not far from modern-day Las Vegas. Dirt’s mayor controls the precious water supply. No one expects the new, citified boy in town to last long. No one seems to care if he lives or dies.

The violence, both threatened and depicted, is squarely in the spirit of the Leone Westerns, where the hyperbole and the stylization make sense as well as make some great cinema. Here it does not. In fact, there is no stylization, which brings us to the most interesting question posed by Rango. When computer-generated animation sticks this closely to photo-realistic landscapes and gunplay and menace, even with a cast of animated lizards and prairie dogs and birds, does the result feel like something for kids?

Logan’s script creates a fully populated world of greed, malice and One True Inadvertent Hero, but the wit and charm is scant. Logan and Verbinski rely mostly on references to other films that were not animated but were in fact full of life, either comic (the onscreen troubadors of Cat Ballou are repurposed here as a mariachi quartet) or dramatic (the Chinatown greedy-developer scenario). Roger Deakins, the True Grit cinematographer who got passed over for an Oscar last week, served as visual consultant on Rango, as he did on the far, far superior How to Train Your Dragon. The shimmer of the setting desert sun, the dust-choked streets, the highnoon gunslingers’ showdown — all the pictorial tropes are present, accounted for and handsomely realized. And they come to almost nothing. Rango never shuts up, but he never has anything funny or touching or clever to say. By the time The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood, but voiced by Timothy Olyphant) arrives to make jokes about the lusciousness of Kim Novak, it’s like: Huh? Wha?

“I found a human spinal column in my food once,” goes one line. References to shooting off critters’ “giblets” or “unmentionables” abound. One character walks around with an arrow sticking out of his eye. Leave it to the Motion Picture Association of America to rate Rango for “rude humor, language, action and smoking” but not, apparently, for the v-word.

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond:letters@boulderweekly.com