Smart, subversive, surreal, and delightfully self-reflexive, Rango is among the best non-Pixar animated films since Antz. [Edit: This originally read “the best non-Pixar animated film since Antz, but it was pointed out to me that my conception of “non-Pixar animated films since Antz” was far too narrow.] Nominally the story of a domesticated lizard who unwittingly becomes the sheriff of a reptile-inhabited, Old West-style desert town, the movie has the trappings of a conventional family adventure, but also works as a critique of the machine-tooled family film formula, and a love letter to the notion of making stuff up as you go along. What a joy to see an original vision constructed with so much passion and smarts.
This is Gore Verbinski’s first non-Pirates of the Caribbean film since 2005, and it finds him reteaming with Johnny Depp, who voices the titular lizard. After his aquarium falls out the back of a station wagon, Rango lands in Dirt, a depressed frontier community of lizards, turtles, moles, and other desert creatures. There’s a water shortage, which most accept as a sandy fact of life (the drink of choice at the local watering hole is cactus juice), but which an unpopular few attribute to foul play. When Rango, a preening drama queen of a reptile, gets himself declared sheriff, it falls to him to solve the mystery.
Despite the PG rating, Rango maybe isn’t for the very youngest set – Verbinski and his team have the guts to make several of the creatures generally unpleasant, and several of the gags approach the gruesome. For adults and more mature kids, though, the movie is an utter joy. Framed as the title character’s search for his identity (“who am I?” he wonders pensively), Rango enacts the family blockbuster’s search for identity – its triumphant escape from the stifling aquarium of the same jokes, stories, and earnest platitudes recycled ad infinitum. You can’t walk out of your own story, it insists, but you have the power to make it better. Here is a movie that, unlike most of its contemporaries, has free will.