Starring: Johnny Depp, Ned Beatty, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin
Runtime: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Bottomline: Animation for hipsters and (maybe) their children
"Rango" is one of the strangest animated features to hit American theatres in decades. That's mostly a good thing.
The story is simple enough. A pet lizard (Johnny Depp) is stranded alone in the desert after he falls out of a moving truck. He has always lived in a terrarium and has never had to contend with his species' natural habitat until now. He journeys to a nearby town populated with a colorful array of desert animals and struggles to survive both the harsh environment and a handful of villains.
So "Rango" is a fish out of water story. But speaking of water ...
The town where the lizard seeks refuge is running out of it. There is a water bank, and only a small portion of its reserve remains. The Mayor (Ned Beatty), a turtle confined to a mechanized wheelchair, controls the flow of new water but has convinced the townspeople that nothing can be done about the shortage.
This is where things become a bit complicated. When the lizard first meets him, the mayor delivers a monologue straight out of "Chinatown." Beatty does a genius impersonation of John Huston while saying, "Whoever controls the water controls everything" and so forth.
"Rango," like all American animation that makes it into wide release, is being marketed as a family movie, but a lot of this movie will be lost on both children and adults. A good deal of the story comes from "Chinatown," and that's just the beginning.
The movie also references "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," numerous Westerns, particularly "Once Upon a Time in the West" and the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, and "Apocalypse Now."
The movie writers at the screening, who are paid to know such things, roared with laughter at those parts of the movie. But I wonder how many others in the audience caught the allusions.
Note that I have thus far referred to Depp's character as "the lizard." That's because the character has no name when the film begins. From start to finish, "Rango" consciously meditates on identity.
The character is play-acting in his terrarium when we meet him, and he pauses to consider, in dramatic soliloquy, exactly who the character in his pretend play is. Then he creates a Shane-like gunslinger persona for himself once he reaches the town, at which point he takes the name Rango.
Eventually he will be forced to decide whether he is a hero or a coward.
Rango's identity crisis and self-doubts raise the broader question of what defines any of us. Do we define ourselves from within, or are we defined by our deeds?
For the most part, "Rango" is not kids' stuff. That point is reinforced by a curse word tally that reaches double digits. The film must have come very close to earning a PG-13 rating.
The imagery can be rather jarring, too. One bird character has an arrow permanently lodged in his head. It enters his eye socket and exits behind his ear. The movie plays it for a joke, but those elements might be a bit much for younger kids.
On the other hand, the movie does many of the things the grade-school set enjoys.
My own son enjoyed the slapstick and all the action, and there is a hilarious mariachi band that comments on the story like a Greek chorus (they keep predicting Rango's death).
The movie also eventually develops the perfect amount of heart. For all its sarcasm and sophistication, these characters are ultimately true believers trying to do the right thing.
I consider the movie excellent if not brilliant, but the ideal audience for it might be very narrow.
"Rango" fits into a trend of adult-skewing American animation. Fans of offbeat comedy should love it, but parents need to exercise caution.