‘Rango’ is a smart, enjoyable ride

His outfit is a reference to Fear and Loathing. Get it?

His outfit is a reference to Fear and Loathing. Get it?

His outfit is a reference to Fear and Loathing. Get it?

3/5 Bear Claws

I know what you’re thinking: “A movie about lizard cowboys? Are you serious?” Yes, actually, I am. And believe me, I was a little dubious too, but I found Rango a fun and clever romp that explodes one Wild West cliché after another in a way that makes the movie unique and memorable.

In the film’s opening scene, you know that all hell is about to break loose when our scaly protagonist utters that “The hero cannot exist in a vacuum.” A conveniently timed accident then catapults the confused little lizard with an identity crisis and a hero complex into a journey to discover — or create — his identity. He finds himself in a little desert town called Dirt whose citizens are desperately in need of both water and a new sheriff. Our lizard claims a new identity — Rango, fiercest chameleon in the West — to be the hero he has always wanted to be and, after bumbling his way through conflict after conflict, eventually proves himself to be worthy of the sheriff badge he wears.

It isn’t a hard plot to unravel; in fact, I figured out the villain and his motive during Rango’s first encounter with him. As I mentioned before, the Wild West clichés abound, including tall tales, a stoic Native American tracker and a spitfire love interest whose main agenda is saving her daddy’s ranch. However, Rango gives comic twists to each cliché it employs to keep things fun and fresh. Rango himself is a delightfully flawed and bumbling hero, caught up in his own charade in a way that both endears him to you and sometimes makes you want to kick him. His tall tales and blustering cowboy boasts are sometimes absurd (making it all the funnier when the people of Dirt believe him), but he delivers them with a fast-talking ingenuity reminiscent of George Clooney’s character in O Brother, Where Art Thou? The slapstick humor and clever dialogue carry the movie along at a good pace, as does the soundtrack, produced by Hans Zimmer and delivered to the audience by a mariachi band of desert owls who also provide foreshadowing and narration a la Greek chorus.

The animation is spectacular; CGI just keeps getting better. Rango’s animators went to a lot of trouble to create a dry and dusty backdrop that never runs the risk of being drab, thanks to its richness in detail. The characters each have texture and movement that synchs with their species and still manages to make them look like hardened Westerners covered in the dust of the desert. The landscape shots are gorgeous and so are the sunsets. I think the best example of the excellence of the movie’s animation, though, is the outlaw Rattlesnake Jake. His movement is smooth, fast, powerful and downright scary. The way the creators animated his rattle into a machine gun is surprisingly seamless and, I thought, somewhat brilliant. When you watch the movie, check out his eyes. If you wanted a villain who gives you goosebumps to look at, Rattlesnake Jake is your reptile.

Speaking of the movement, check out the behind the scenes features on YouTube to see how the animators actually made this movie. Rango was blocked and choreographed in the studio for the actors to physically play it out, and the animators based the characters’ expressions and body language off of the performance of the actors. It isn’t the typical method for producing a CGI movie, but it definitely works, and Johnny Depp’s zany movements bring Rango to life.

One complaint I have is  with the ending. Don’t get me wrong: it’s exciting and fun and you’ll love to see poetic justice served. It also seals up Rango’s personal journey by satisfying his quest for identity, so the metaphysical plot comes to a nice conclusion. However, the solution to the physical conflict is problematic. I’ll try to keep it vague so as not to completely spoil the ending, but the resolution sees the citizens of Dirt faced with either continued drought or flooding. Or they could continue to harness the conveniently helpful walking cacti. That too.

I was skeptical when I saw that one of the producers was Nickelodeon Movies (after the terrible adaptations of Avatar: The Last Airbender and A Series of Unfortunate Events, who wouldn’t be?), but the company surprised me with a truly enjoyable film. Rango has its issues that you can’t overlook, and sometimes pushes you to suspend your belief farther than you may like (seriously, though, you’re watching a movie about lizard cowboys), but those flaws don’t negate the entertainment value or the enjoyment of the movie. If you pick it during your next group movie night, I’m pretty sure you’ll come away laughing and glad you chose it.

And if you still aren’t convinced, let me add that the soundtrack features a version of The Ride of the Valkyries—played on banjos. Do you honestly need any more incentive?