Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp: The Tourist) is a chameleon with an identity crisis. Kept in captivity, he makes himself the hero of elaborate plays, using a Barbie torso, a windup fish and a dead bug as a supporting cast.
His bleak little theater troupe is shattered, literally, when his tank falls out of his owner’s car and lands on a desert highway. Bewildered by new surroundings, Rango meets Roadkill (Alfred Molina: The Tempest), an armadillo partially flattened on the highway. Massive internal damage and a little burned rubber isn’t enough to fell this roadside philosopher, who sends Rango on a quest to find his purpose and the mythical Spirit of the West.
What Rango really discovers is that he has no natural survival skills as he is almost killed by a silver-beaked hawk. By the grace of luck or the Spirit of the West, Rango makes it to Dirt, a dustbowl of a town populated by a desperately poor, disgustingly grimy mix of rodents, fowl, reptiles and amphibians.
These simple folk are in the midst of a crippling drought and are desperate for hope. So Rango gives it to them, in his greatest performance, playing the part of a tough-as-nails gunslinger who needs only one bullet to kill seven men. When Rango accidentally kills the hawk in front of the townspeople, they make the timid little lizard their sheriff and believe their troubles are gone.
Maybe it’s the dehydration.
Still as real threats of death and destruction pile atop the town of Dirt, Rango must decide whether he can be the hero he claimed he was.
Rango is a great animated flick for a very specific audience. Sadly it’s not the kids the film has been marketed to.
At my screening of Rango, a mother herded her small child into the theater just as the previews began. He laughed uproariously at previews for Hop and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, repeating punch lines in between giggle fits.
When Rango began ... silence.
It’s not that the film isn’t funny. It’s hilarious. But the humor is derived from spoofs and references to classic films well beyond the scope of the average grade-schooler. A middle schooler might enjoy some of the gore and fart jokes but would probably miss the plot references to Chinatown or the fact that evil Rattlesnake Jake is modeled on Lee Van Cleef’s baddie from The Good The Bad and the Ugly. The Cat Ballou-esque Mariachi band that follows Rango on his adventure is nothing but a cute flock of owls to everyone but the most die-hard cinephile.
The fact that the Spirit of the West is a brilliant tribute to the most iconic spaghetti western actor in cinema history will be sadly lost to Rango’s target audience. And that’s a shame, because it alone is worth the price of admission.
Pixar — and the better parts of the Disney catalog — have made their wildly successful films by appealing to two widely different audiences: Children and the adults who accompany them to movies.
It’s clear early on that Rango isn’t that interested in the younger audience. From gruesome character design — one townsperson is a seagull with an arrow sticking through his eye and out of his head — to semi-sophisticated story, there isn’t much to make younger kids giggle. The cutest character in the story is that windup fish. And I can’t imagine a line of toys featuring a jaundiced mouse with a torn ear, dirty whiskers and a meaty, pocked nose — that would be Spoons, one of the main characters.
The design works for the spaghetti western ambiance the movie strives for, and there is something delightful in how aggressively ugly the townspeople are. But the overall effect is tarnished by the film’s attempts at cute characters. Rango’s love interest, Beans (Isla Fisher), is a lovely little lizard with perfect curls.
Rango is a film that I’ll enjoy more on my second screening, where I can carefully search for more hidden cinema references. But for kids, I fear it’ll just be that scary lizard movie. It’s a shame the studio didn’t go whole-hog and market this to an adult audience.