Gore Verbinski’s Rango is a queasy reminder that adult entertainment does not necessarily possess depth or maturity. Like many recent animated adventures, there are anthropomorphized critters, kinetic chase sequences, and an ultimately redemptive story. But whereas the average Pixar feature contains memorable characters and just the perfect mix of adult/child content, Rango relies on tired archetypes and animation that’s – no point in parsing words – downright revolting. Uncommon detail and clever in-jokes did little to relieve my very real, near-nonstop sense of discomfort. Unsure whether it wants to appeal to young adults or mature kids, Rango placates the worst of both demographics.
It starts out promisingly enough. Johnny Depp stars as a profoundly lonely lizard, one who responds to extreme isolation with an inventive imagination. An unexpected accident causes the lizard to stumble upon Dirt, a Western town with a severe water shortage. The townspeople are a rough bunch, so the lizard wins them by telling them he’s Rango, a courageous gunslinger. Recognizing Rango’s growing influence, the town’s conniving Mayor (Ned Beatty) appoints him sheriff, a position Rango handles with stunning incompetence. Despite winning the trust of the townsfolk and Beans (Isla Fisher), a fetching young farmer, the new sheriff unwittingly helps thieves steal the town’s dwindling water supply. He assembles a posse to apprehend the thieves, only to discover later the real source of the town’s drought.
The biggest problem with Rango is the character design. Along with an owl mariachi band, Rango is fun to watch and weirdly expressive, yet all others are off-putting ugly. The snout of a blind bank-robbing mole, for example, hangs off his face like disease-riddled genitalia. Most have mangled teeth, others have slimy scales, and one unfortunate creature has an arrow permanently lodged in his eyeball. I have no problem with ugly-cute – a precocious opossum traverses the line ably – but most characters are ugly-ugly, the sort of creatures so deep in the uncanny valley that they bring down the entire movie with it. Grotesqueries would be fine if the level of character development matched the detail of their appearance, yet they only serve as a tiresome sounding board for their hero. As Rango, Johnny Depp handles his rich dialog with bizarre grace, though it grows tiresome since few townsfolk serve as a competent foil. A wonderfully oblique encounter with a Clint Eastwood clone (Timothy Olyphant) notwithstanding, their puerile personalities offer little relief from their unpleasant appearance.
Screenwriting veteran John Logan has an inconsistent voice, and it’s unclear whether Rango wants to be a kid’s movie or a gross-out comedy. The business of Beans’ bizarre affliction – she freezes when provoked – is the kind of slapstick to which younger audiences respond. Still, there are jarringly violent gags for every successful one, and the uneven humor accumulates into a bizarre hodgepodge that’s more disengaging than funny. Warm homages to other psychedelic westerns like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Raising Arizona are welcome (there’s even time for a rehashing of Apocalypse Now), yet these clever references cannot save the material from its flaws.
With a running time of 107 minutes, Rango is twenty minutes too long. Gore Verbinski’s work suffers from the same problem as the Pirates of the Caribbean films; while he is always a visually striking director, the big action sequences are too repetitive. In fact, there are four similar chases where Rango must contend with a deadly aerial threat. I suppose Verbinski wanted his first animated effort to serve as offbeat counter-programming – a stronger story with more heart would have served him better than ugly characters and rude humor. At the happy hour prior to the screening, I agreed to let my girlfriend temporarily tattoo Rango on my forehead. Next time I’ll be more careful about which characters I offer my cranial support.