by Richard von Busack
So almost great, it hurts. What Rango lacks is what Pixar finesses, the polishing: the elimination through visual storytelling of the kind of dialogue Rango ends up having to send up. Not to mention a commitment to tone. Rango skews older, with a few class-3 obscenities and a prostate-exam joke. Yet somehow the Toy Story franchise caught adult attention without going dirty.
Plus director Gore Verbinski (of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) knows how to overstuff a film like no one else around. The middle section of Rango is one of those long wow-factory chases that the Indiana Jones movies took to an extreme, complete with an attack wing of cave bats with guns. The acrobatics never end, and it's like the too slick moments in Cirque de Soliel: it just keeps coming on and coming on. No one can say Rango lacks momentum...just direction. And this middle section stalls the ultimate showdown with a very frightening villain, an enormous and armed rattlesnake (Bill Nighy voices him) with a Lee Van Cleef mustache. Ultimately the middle section chase scene is like a subplot that got out of control; it's immaterial to the solution of the mystery, got through quiet detective work.
The central idea in John Logan's script is a shrewd one: a chameleon's search for character. A pet in a terrarium, he's thrown from the family car after a minor accident and is stranded in the desert. After escaping a starving hawk, a sequence which includes some fine tribute moments to Chuck Jones, the lizard meets a fellow reptile. She's a rancher named Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher), a hard-bitten girl prone to cataleptic attacks. She takes the stranger to the town of Dirt. The place is beautiful in its fashion: a drought-struck hamlet made from junk and rubbis looking, like a folk-art village, and populated by desert creatures.
The wheelchair bound mayor (some magnificent voice work by Ned Beatty, who is as good here as he was doing the voice of the sinister bear in Toy Story 3) is a lot like John Huston's Noah Cross...so much so that the long-time moviegoer realizes Dirt's drought isn't natural. The chameleon takes the name "Rango" and poses as a bad hombre. After catching the mayor's attention with the way he deals with the marauding hawk, Rango gets the sherriff's badge. His most pressing assignment: to figure out what became of the town's water.
The characterization, art direction and CGI are of a uniformly high quality. Roger Deakins (True Grit, et all) was a consultant on the sunsets and skyscapes, and the soundtrack couldn't be more eclectic. It's performed by a blend of composers and musicians including Jello Biafra, Rahat Ali Khan, the Sons of the Pioneers and Los Lobos.
The lead acting begs the question of whether Johnny Depp is exactly a man of a thousand voices or not. Maybe the essential chameleonism of Depp is why the film seems slightly hollow. Depp's recessiveness is of the things that keeping Rango from being as classic as it wants to be. The outer plot ransacks Sergio Leone, particularly the water wars in Once Upon a Time in the West. But Rango's inner questions—the questions of duty, of surviving ordeals, of returning to a lethal task after humiliation—are more like the Jimmy Stewart adult western of the 1950s. Perhaps Rango should have gone with someone older, middle aged and culpable like Stewart was in The Man from Laramie. Depp's lightness makes for what seems like miscasting, even taking the part of a poser who has to become what he pretends to be.
It wants to be light-footed, but Rango is dealing with some existential matters. The film rattles one too many archetypes, and flashes too many post-modern mannerisms. The virtue of cutting the dialogue in a western never seemed so clear: the instance where one of Rango's speeches is interrupted with the words "Don't spoil it" could have summed up the whole movie's problems.