RANGO Review

I grew up believing that "subversive" was a bad thing to be. I thought it was a polite way of calling someone a troublemaker. Now that I'm an alleged grown-up, and frequently surrounded by Hollywood films that are as generic as the day is long, "subversive" has become one of my very favorite ways to describe a film ... if it actually deserves to be known as a film that subverts expectations, ventures to strange places in the service of a few laughs, and offers a handful of surprises, be they large or small.

Gore Verbinski's latest is called Rango, and it may be one of the most wonderfully subversive feature-length animated flicks since the original Shrek. (Yes, I mean that as a compliment; the first Shrek still holds up exceedingly well.) Small kids (age six and up, I'd say) will no doubt take great delight in the movie's bizarre animal characters, its generally broad humor, and its numerous action sequences -- but it's the grown-ups who will find a lot more to enjoy than just another 87-minute cartoon animal-fest.

Although it borrows from a variety of colorful inspirations, Rango is basically "Sergio Leone's Looney Tunes Chinatown." The plot, which deals with a lonely chameleon who unwittingly becomes a cowboy hero in a town full of truly weird animals, is lifted (lovingly) from a variety of basic Westerns, but the humor of Rango (both the tone and its rapid-fire presentation) is pure Chuck Jones, and most of the little details are ported in from a wide variety of grown-up influences. (Yes, Rango also snags a few funny ideas from Roman Polanski's Chinatown, and does so quite cleverly.)

So with Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) at the helm, John Logan (Gladiator) behind the keyboard, and Johnny Depp at the microphone for the title character, you'd of course expect a few laughs and maybe a slick chase scene or two out of Rango -- and the disarmingly adorable movie certainly delivers those basic essentials. But, as is often the case in truly superior examples of the animated arts, the true beauty lies in the details, and Rango is packed to the rafters with great little details: consistently clever sight gags, subtle (and not-so-subtle) film references, great little moments from voices of character actors that allow the background players to shine, action scenes that roll on just a little bit longer than they normally do, and a collection of wonderfully arcane animal characters that manage to lampoon the inherent "cuteness" of animated critters while managing to be strangely sweet in their own right.

Logan's script often goes for the "weird" laugh, Depp seems to be having a lot of fun between the scripted gags and the odd mumblings he makes up on the spot, and there's an infectiously manic energy to Rango that makes its few slow spots seem more like rest stops than "boring parts." It's very funny, packed with solid action, animated with a remarkable degree of care and creativity, and delivered with a breathless sense of energy that's often found in the most inspired animated works.

I have no idea if kids will like it, but I'm pretty certain that Rango's target audience will have a ball with this silly, strange, exciting, and inspired little piece of animated Western wackiness. (And I think that its target audience is actually somwhere around ... 32.)
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