directed by Gore Verbinski
(Paramount, 2011)

Spaghetti Westerns have a firm place in American culture, to which this surreal, lovable, goofy and visually stunning movie is both parody and tribute. Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy director Gore Verbinski's first CGI film is a delight of the senses. It's a not just a cinematic trope salad, it's a cinematic trope buffet. Half the fun is spotting the Sergio Leone- and Roman Polanski-inspired in-jokes and familiar storylines. Gladiator scriptwriter John Logan offers plenty of adult-themed jokes for the mature part of the audience, while the younger viewers can feast on the movie's visually sensual cinematography, courtesy of Roger Deakins (True Grit, the remake, and WALL*E).

This is Industrial Light & Magic's first full-length feature film, after spending most of its existence as a special-effects provider. It's a gorgeous debut of an adventure story, full of in-jokes referring to quite a few movies, but those bits are recycled with a loving hand.

It's impossible not to get swept up in the sheer exuberant fun the movie has with the well-known set-up of the lonesome, mysterious stranger who becomes the sole hope of a broken-down town under siege. Under the severe misimpression that Johnny Depp's Rango is a gunslinger of renown -- and not, say, just an ordinary family pet who got lost while on vacation -- the townsfolk of Dirt, a place that's being drained - literally -- of its precious water supply (hello, Chinatown), relies on him to play detective and find out why they are running dry. The anthropomorphized creatures may be crusty on the outside but inwardly they are a trusting, even warm-hearted lot of hard-working folks who have simply fallen on hard times and don't know where to turn for guidance.

When Rango takes over the role of sheriff, he does so because his overactive imagination, having run ahead of his mouth, has rather trapped him in the role. Underneath his self-centeredness, however, a tiny, cowering bit of self-esteem suddenly blooms into a sense of responsibility that eventually decides to answer to a cause that's something greater, and better, than his own wild fantasizing could ever have dreamed up. This is not an easy thing for a chameleon to do, especially when its sole purpose in life is to blend in.

That, of course, is the obvious but effective metaphor for the whole point of the movie, which is understanding the contrast between fantasy and reality, which in itself is a pretty neat balancing act, considering that the story is an artifice to begin with. Not only that, but it's a parody of an artifice. This is where the movie can be a bit too clever for its own good, in a way that might be rather exhaustive for younger viewers to follow, but there's enough there in this smorgasbord of laughs for them to get lost in while older viewers like me, who don't mind having a nicely textured story to sink their teeth into, can sit back and enjoy the pop culture hat tip fun on more than one level.

In fact, the numerous cinematic allusions, from Ned Beatty as the evil mayor Noah Cross, which is lifted straight from John Huston, to Timothy Olyphant as a Clint Eastwood-like mysterious Man With No Name, to the name Rango itself (from Franko Nero's mythic antihero, Django), are almost head-spinning in their eager attempt to refer to the hybridized Italian-American spaghetti westerns that reshaped the genre by injecting darker themes into the storylines. But Rango's determinedly effervescent sense of humor keeps the plot from being too shallow or too nihilistic in its attempt to mimic a fine tradition, with wit that's both visual and verbal. It's antic to the point of chaotic but that is the film's unique alchemy: this is such an act of respect that you don't need to know all the references to previous movies. You just need to feel the enormous love that went into making this highly inventive, never-a-dull-moment flick, not a difficult task when there's so much joy to be had from just relaxing into the movie and letting it wash over you. Any viewer of any age should be able to get a kick out of this one.

I'd say ILM's first shot at movie making is a great first effort, and I hope to see more.

review by
Mary Harvey

15 October 2011

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