Movie Review: Rango (2011)


Road Kill

A Film Review of Rango

By: Lawrence Napoli



Johnny Depp does not have the Midas Touch.  I realize this may be a shock to most of you out there, but this statement of fact holds especially true for his two ventures in voice over work in Corpse Bride (2005) and Rango.  Granted, an actor has very little control over a performance when their voice is displaced from the rest of their body, but when the end product is simply flawless along the lines of the Toy Story franchise, well it simply adds to the legacy of other actors such as Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.  I realize that Depp is the kind of actor and individual who isn’t phased in the least when it comes to criticism, but sometimes I feel he is equally unimpressed by praise.  Therefore, at the end of this review I will perform the Jedi mind trick on you, the reader, and we will never again speak of Johnny Depp’s association with animation, voice-over or projects that are as curious as they are irrelevant.

Rango is the tale of a neurotic, self conscious chameleon whose fate it seems destined for beyond that of a glass bowl pet.  He is “liberated” from his isolated prison to the harsh reality of the desert which he must traverse to come to the aid of a town filled with other pests, reptiles and creatures of the wild in order to save the day by finding the one vital ingredient to survival in the barren wasteland: water.  Indeed, this sounds like a quaint little children’s tale featuring talking animals playing out human roles in a Wild West story, but upon further examination of screenwriter John Logan’s resume, I have come to a different conclusion.  Logan is no slouch as his list of credits include Any Given Sunday (1999), Gladiator (2000), Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), The Last Samurai (2003), The Aviator (2004) and Sweeney Todd (2007).  This is a list that showcases both success and variety for a seasoned and confidant writer which is why I found it quite curious that he decided to low jack the basic plot from Chinatown (1974), make it all cutesy with talking rodents and sprinkle in some references to previous Depp films like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Pirates of the Caribbean in order to come up with his own children’s tale.  And make no mistake, this film was marketed as a children’s film whether that was Logan’s intent or not and therein lies both the inherent weakens or strength of this film depending on who you ask.  The target audience could be 10 to infinity, but the adult references, tongue-in-cheek comedy and dialogue is of an overall higher brow (along the lines of his previous scripts) that would go right over the heads of pre-teens.  Perhaps this screenplay is a subliminal backhand to Hunter S. Thompson whose textual ravings would only appeal to the likes of children because often is the case that the audience finds the title character, Rango, go off on these comedic tangents as one is left wondering if any of it actually moves the story along.  Fear not, as this script does not discriminate as adults and children alike were equally befuddled by this tale’s purpose, comedy and dialogue.  It’s not that the story wasn’t entertaining; it’s that I found it to be as precise as buckshot and worse, I honestly didn’t care by the film’s end.

This film cost $135 million dollars to make!  I am so sorry, but I must repeat.  This film cost $135 million dollars to make!  I am literally beside myself as I type these words.  This film wasn’t even converted to 3D and it still cost that much?  Before I hyperventilate, I remind myself that Toy Story 3 cost an equally ridiculous $200 million dollars, but that film made more than half of its budget back on opening weekend and it had two previous installments that simply made Pixar an incredible amount of profit.  Upon examining the Toy Story films, one does not notice a vast difference in the high quality of the CG animation since the first film to warrant such a vast increase in budgetary costs.  Upgrading software and hardware may also have been taken into consideration, but again considering the same level of polish amongst them all, I still don’t see the difference.  The one thing that the Toy Story films share with Rango is a series of A-list Hollywood names sharing the voice over duties for their respective films and I would really like to know what percentage of the overall budgets were allocated to the voice talent because I believe it is here where the producers were abused by the agents representing said talent.  We all know the big names behind Toy Story, but Rango follows suit with Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina and Timothy Olyphant.  A live action feature would be hard pressed to accommodate all of these actors’ salaries at once and so I wonder what kind of a “tax break” this kind of talent gives to animated features.  Looking at those previously mentioned budgets, I don’t presume much.  Executive producer Tim Headington ought to have taken into consideration some lesser known names to fill out the rest of the cast outside of Depp himself.  The level of talent in animated features does not translate to box office numbers to the same extent it does for live action.  Quality of animation and concept does.  I maintain this philosophy for any independent wizards of animation (computer or otherwise) out there who wish to compete with the Dreamworks and Pixars of today.  It can be done, because if it’s one thing that American animated features have not thoroughly explored, it’s depth of story.

Rango is one of those animated oddities that seem to have a little something for every adult and child making it an instant family classic.  This is not one of those films.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cute little story and worth taking kids to if a parent really has nothing better to distract them with, but it simply isn’t very entertaining for those who have no problems holding their attention spans for more than 10 seconds.  Perhaps this production was a victim of its own hype as it was heavily promoted to be as synonymous with the Depp brand as Pirates and highly suggestive of being a game-changer for CG animated features.  Again, this is not the case.  I tried my best to like this film, but could never give this an endorsement higher than average and mildly entertaining.  A wave of the hand and, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”