Imagine if, during the events of FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, Raoul Duke had experienced a mescaline-induced fever dream in which he metamorphosed into a lost chameleon and became the sheriff of a desert town called Dirt and had to interact with other bizarre anthropomorphized animals while embarking on a mission of destiny. Sprinkle in crazy visuals, intense action sequences and mystery, a variety of cinematic homages ranging from the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood to THE THREE AMIGOS! to vintage Disney to Tarantino and the Coen Bros. and Polanski, a healthy dose of philosophy and introspection, and that is kind of what RANGO is all about -- and, friends, it is AWESOME.
At the start, the viewing audience is greeted by four mariachi owls who lead us through the story and keep us guessing about just how how hero is going to die. We meet a lonely chameleon with no name who is unexpectedly thrown into the harsh reality of life, smack in the middle of the Nevada desert. An encounter with a spiritual armadillo gets him started on a quest of self-discovery, which ultimately leads him to the classic old western town of Dirt. The townspeople are odd, paranoid and suspicious of outsiders because their water supply is perilously low and strange things are afoot. To endear himself to the crowd, our hero calls himself Rango and concocts tales of his own heroics, prompting the townsfolk to deem him their new sheriff and savior (a touch of Mickey Mouse and THE BRAVE LITTLE TAILOR there). It falls to Rango to uncover the mystery of the dwindling water supply, battle corruption within the town government, fend off outlaws and enemies of various sizes, get the girl, and yes, figure out exactly who he is and what his destiny entails. Oh, and try not to die.
The result is an absolute triumph for Gore Verbinski. A few years ago, no one in their right mind believed that PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN could possibly be good, let alone spawn one of the biggest money-making franchises of all time -- but Verbinski made believers out of everyone with genre-redefining skill. And now, much like Chris Nolan, who used the success of the Batman films to spearhead his pet project (INCEPTION), Verbsinki has used his clout to bring us the first non-Pixar instant animated classic we've seen in some time.
It's a return to form for Johnny Depp, too -- who, if you think about it, hasn't been involved in a really good movie in an astonishingly long time, with the exception of the PIRATES series. Yes, he was nominated for an Oscar as recently as 2008 for SWEENEY TODD, but that film was a bloated mess and by that point, his association with Tim Burton had already grown tiresome (now, three years later, it's downright annoying). Films like FINDING NEVERLAND and FROM HELL had their moments, but by my estimation, you have to go all the way back to 1998 for Depp's last GREAT film -- which, it so happens, is none other than FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. Coincidence? Perhaps. But as Rango, clad in a Raoul Duke-esque Hawaiian shirt, Depp embraces the story's surrealism and accidental heroism with gusto.
Fantastic supporting voice work brings to life a motley crew of major and minor characters -- actors ranging from Bill Nighy as an outlaw rattlesnake, Abigail Breslin as a smart-mouthed youngster, Isla Fisher as Rango's eccentric, narcoleptic love interest and Ned Beatty as Dirt's corrupt tortoise mayor, plus many other smaller but no less memorable characters. The script is fresh and crisp, hilarious and action-packed -- the humor and tone is clearly geared more towards adults and definitely earns its PG rating, but should be fine for most kids. The real eye-opener, however, is the animation itself -- it is downright gorgeous, unique, at times photorealistic (ONLY available in 2D, it should be noted), loaded with visual jokes, homages and a sense of scope that may require multiple viewings. A major triumph for Industrial Light & Magic in their debut animated feature. If they can keep this up, Pixar might actually start feeling some heat. Last year was an excellent one for animation, and this year is now off to a good start -- and with CARS 2 looking like Pixar's most underwhelming movie in years (if not ever), we could be in for an unusual situation, come Oscar time.
RANGO is now in theatres and it is safe to say that it is the first must-see movie of the year (though THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, which also opened this weekend, is also exceptional -- not bad for early March). It's a wonderful, weird and wildly entertaining mescaline trip that's fun for the whole family!