March 08, 2011

MOVIES: Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011)

I had been skeptical of this one, if only because the characters were so visually unappealing in the posters and ads. But the movie turns out to be a terrific riff on old-fashioned westerns, and not, I think, a movie for kids, who won't get most of the jokes and movie references.
Johnny Depp provides the voice for our hero, a chameleon who winds up abandoned in the desert and wanders into the small town of Dirt. Dirt is in need of a new sheriff, and the chameleon (who is something of a drama enthusiast) takes on the job, adopting a tough-guy persona and calling himself Rango.

Dirt is in the midst of a serious drought, and no one can figure out why the water's stopped flowing. The story turns into a wacko riff on Chinatown, with Ned Beatty's corrupt mayor in the John Huston role, and Rango follows the expected path of the pretend hero who is forced to dig deep and find the real hero within.

There's a marvelous voice cast here. We've got Alfred Molina as Roadkill, an armadillo who offers mystic advice to Rango; Isla Fisher as Beans, a tomboy lizard who becomes Rango's romantic interest; Timothy Olyphant as the Spirit of the West; and (best of all) Bill Nighy as the sinister Rattlesnake Jake.

Hans Zimmer's score is great fun, largely built around a mariachi band of owls who serve as combination narrators/Greek chorus. But he also uses existing music in wonderful ways -- an aerial assault set to a banjo-flavored version of "Ride of the Valkyries," a strange ritual line dance to the tune of "Cool Water." Some of the animation set pieces are spectacular; the first confrontation between Rango and Rattlesnake Jake is amazing, and Jake is a genuinely frightening villain.

Very much recommended, and worth seeing on the big screen.

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