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David Poland

By David Poland

Rango (Spoiler-Free Review)

An animated film that you really need to see a few times is a rare commodity.

Pixar has been on the cutting edge of making animated films that speak to young and old(er) alike. And they have proven that you never quite can see it coming if it’s really great. Even the three-quel of Toy Story was a serious turn in that series of films, speaking to deeper, more complex emotions about change and loss than the first two successful and charming films.

Gore Verbinski, with LucasFilm as his animation company, just made a film the goes right to the top of that Pixar tree. In fact, I would say, right now, that the only animated film that could beat Rango for the Oscar next year (for Animated Feature) is Tintin, presuming that Spielberg’s film is run as an animated film. Both films will be released by Paramount. Neither film is from DreamWorks Animation. And both films will be animated in an heretofore untraditional way, Spielberg using much of the WETA-developed technology that Cameron used for Avatar to make his motion capture animated film. (Ironically, it was DreamWorks that gave Verbinsku his big feature film break, with Mouse Hunt and then The Mexican.)

It’s thrilling, really. Sometimes we forget that studio releases can be cutting edge and weighty in film history they way we often think of “indie” films.

Rango is a movie about movies.

It’s a western homage, first and foremost, ranging from High Noon to Star Wars with plenty of Boetticher in the mix. But Verbinski, who gets a shared story credit with the screenplay credit going to John Logan (another likely nominee next year), freely steals from every corner of film and culture.

At times, you feel like he is doing his personally preferred version of films he already made, especially the opening “Dead Cap’n Jack” sequence at the top of Pirates 3. There’s a bit that seems like a variation of Knick Knack, the great Pixar feature that was the first widely seen public face of CG Animation. There is the greek chorus, here embodied by Mariachi owls.

But mostly, this is about the spirit of the west and The Spirit of the West. (That won’t make sense until you see the film… and don’t let anyone spoil the pleasure of joy The Spirit adds to the party.) Rango is the everyman who dreams of being a hero, gets the chance to play the role, fails, stops believing in himself, and then finds the spirit to rise again. It’s a pretty basic movie tale. But it’s the beauty of the journey that makes this a great movie experience.

The magic trick, I think, is that Verbinski is artist enough to adhere to or to disregard “the rules” as he sees fit. The town of Dirt, for instance, is made up of junk and garbage. The bar, for instance, is housed in an old 5-gallon gas can. But he doesn’t sell that as a gag. It’s in the edges of the frame, visible, but not emphasized. It’s never (well, rarely), “Look at how clever we are.” It’s just clever.

The Mayor of Dirt is in a wheelchair. I didn’t fully realize he was a turtle until he is out of his chair in one scene. And in that moment, it was both a surprise and obvious. That is how I felt about the film, over and over and over again.

It’s in the writing too. There are a lot of dead ends in Rango… every one of which works. It’s a hard kind of humor to do. But Verbinski & Co make it work.

And there is great unexpected beauty. Pill bugs. Weathered water-hungry trees. The odd appearance of human beings, who feel, even more than the rest of the film, like they were caricatured by the great Drew Friedman or Jason Seiler, including a head-spinning reference to Johnny Depp… but not.

This movie is so not the movie that Paramount has been selling. I guess “Johnny Depp is Rango” is an easier pitch. The movie is profoundly odd, in the most beautiful way. And Depp is both brilliant… and gently part of a great ensemble of voice actors. He is not doing as much as he often does with his characters. The choices he’s made are very specific and very strong, but not very showy. He is the fulcrum of the piece, not the flavor. (This is the danger in Pirates 4. In the prior films, Depp was the showstopper, but the lovers were the fulcrum, allowing Depp to dominated but to still be “the character actor.” We’ll see how that works in the new film.)

Rango is a movie lover’s movie. See it with your 50-year-old neighbor who has bookshelves filled with DVDs. He will love it more than the 8-year-old sitting next to him. But that 8-year-old? He or She will treasure Rango for a lifetime, the way we have all held The Wizard of Oz or Bullwinkle (animated version, thanks) or the stories of the Brothers Grimm or Bambi or Pinocchio or Up or The Little Mermaid, etc, etc. The film will challenge the little ones. They won’t get all the jokes and the subtext. But as they grow, they will grow into more and more of the film. And when they see Rango again while smoking a joint in their first dorm room in the first week of college in 2021, they will laugh as hard and as long as the first time they saw it and they mostly laughed at all the funny insects and reptiles doing physical schtick.

I wanted to headline this review “Pirates of the Amphibians,” until I realized that there were only one or two amphibious creatures in the film. But the moniker fits in spirit, if not in specific. And giving it one more thought, that might make it the perfect way to describe this film. No box fits. Thank the movie gods!

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38 Responses to “Rango (Spoiler-Free Review)”

  1. Paul MD (Stella's Boy) says:

    I was hoping to take my 3-and-a-half year-old to see this, but seems too long and a little inappropriate for his age. Looks great though.

  2. LexG says:

    Gonna get CRUSHED by “Beastly” at the box office…

  3. Paul MD (Stella's Boy) says:

    Ha. Beastly is tracking for about $6 million last I saw. Rango around $40M.

  4. David Poland says:

    3.5 might be early. There is a brilliantly scary villain gunslinger who might freak him out. Some little little ones, yes. But it’s a very specific call for parents of the smaller kids.

    8 is about the “safe” age, I’d think.

  5. Paul MD (Stella's Boy) says:

    Thanks DP. Guess I’ll be waiting for Rio for our next movie adventure.

  6. Drew McWeeny says:


    Last night, we took our youngest to see it. He turns three on Friday, so this was his first film in the theater.

    He loved the experience, and especially the gunslinger villain David mentioned. He’s a monster-loving kid in general, with Godzilla toys and monster books in the house, so none of the creepy phased him at all.

    I think it depends on the kid, but I’ll just say that both of mine dug it a lot.

    My wife, on the other hand, despised every second of it. Hated it. Can barely express how much she hated it.

    I think you’re either all-in on this one, or you’ll really reject it.

  7. Paul MD (Stella's Boy) says:

    Ah Rango for a first movie. A memory forever. My son’s is Toy Story 3. Thank you Drew. He is into the weird and creepy. Loves Coraline.

  8. LexG says:

    This is my kidless cluelessness asking, but do kids really know what they’re watching before, say, age 5?

    I definitely remember being five/six and seeing heavy hitters like Revenge of the Pink Panther, Jaws 2, and Moonraker in theaters and loving the experience, but before that? I don’t even remember being a cognizant being at age three; Yeah, that’s mostly attributed to it being so long ago and you being so young that early childhood is a blur in hindsight, but that’s always given me the (probably mistaken) impression that kids 0-4 don’t have any comprehension of what they’re looking at, and life is mostly a lot of ringing in your ears and a vague fuzziness where you don’t know what’s going on at all. So in terms of showing them movies, I always figured showing a kid SAW VII or SNOW WHITE would get pretty much the same baffled, scared reaction to both.

    This has been “Good Thing I Won’t Reproduce.”

  9. rachel says:

    Rango looks great and I want to see it right now!!! and with the sexy Johnny ‘s voice….yummy!

  10. Paul MD (Stella's Boy) says:

    That’s a good question Lex. One of my first memories is rushing home to watch Scooby Doo at age 3 or 4 after my dad came home from work (babysitter was 2 houses away). My first memory of the movies is a little later than that, probably 5 or 6. I doubt he’ll remember seeing Toy Story 3 in theaters, but he loved every second of it. My first really vivid theater memory: Pet Semetary. Love that movie.

  11. Evan says:

    I took my daughter to several Disney animated films at about 3, and she remembers them very well. One was “Dumbo,” and she cried during the sad part. Kids are generally even more “with it,” today, so I think kids do remember their film experience’s as young as 3.

  12. LexG says:

    This is getting off-tangent, but I have NO real memories of ANYTHING before age 4. None. Maybe a faint, blurry image of some of my toys, and the house we lived in. But far as I know, I went around with clouds in my head absolutely clueless as to what was going on around me for four years.


    Anyone see Abigail Breslin out promoting this thing on the shows this past week? Holy growth spurt, and lucky for her, NOT the SPENCER Breslin kind. Cool kid.

  13. hcat says:

    Saw an ad that showed the cast acting out the situations in costume while they were doing the voice recording. Seemed like a novel idea and likely to add to the energy of the film. We have been waiting to take our 3.5 year old to the right movie (she is enthralled with bad guys). This sounds like the winner.

  14. York "Budd" Durden says:

    One of my first memories is of seeing Spock on the teevee. My earliest movie memory is being taken to see The Aristocats. A big close up of a cat’s face made me dizzy and nauseous. I remember my mom hauling me out to the lobby in time to vomit on the carpet in front of the theatre manager’s shiny black dress shoes.

  15. LexG says:

    Since I’m not FOUR YEARS OLD, I won’t be seeing this. I’ll be seeing something for adults, like BEASTLY.

    What is wrong with America that it’s ALWAYS some FAMILY MOVIE as #1. Shtick aside, I’m very serious: are these things hits oversees? Do the French line up in droves to see Pixar movies now? Are there THIRTY AND FORTYSOMETHINGS in Germany and Italy and GREAT BRITAIN who go to see RANGO as an adult, instead of some upscale Euro shit?

    Is it just Americans who’ve devolved into cartoon-watching adults, or is that across the globe? When it was like 1981, I CAN’T FUCKING IMAGINE anyone in my fifth-grade class, let alone ADULTS, going to see THE LAST UNICORN.


    You guys wanna see ANIMATION instead of three of the hottest women in the world? Be my guest, but I don’t get it. IT’S FOR KIDS.

  16. Breedlove says:

    Smoking a joint in your dorm room is asking for trouble. Best to stick to the pipe or bong and make sure you get the smoke out the window.

    I have trouble getting too excited about animated films, but I am very much looking forward to seeing what Verbinski does post-Pirates.

  17. Jeffrey Boam's Doctor says:

    DP can you please put a poll with this as the title:

    – LexG
    – Leah
    – IO
    – Christian

    Let the people speak. I think I know the winner.

  18. chris says:

    Avoiding spoilers, I do have a question about the Spirit of the West: What are the intellectual property ramifications of that? I’m sure the bases are covered but would they have had to pay the, uh, originator of that character?

  19. The first theatrical experience I remember was when I saw The Muppets Take Manhattan at the age of four, although I distinctly remember seeing Superman III at a drive-in, which came out in June of 1983 (I had just turned three). I certainly remember following the narrative to the second movie I saw in a theater, The Last Starfighter, and I do remember that it scared the crap out of me (which is ironic, as I had been watching ‘completely legitimate’ Betamax copies of the Star Wars trilogy and ET since I was around 2-3).

    I didn’t take my daughter to a movie theater until right before she turned two. Frankly, I figured it would be a bust but was trying to give my wife some time to rest (it was a second run theater about thirty-minutes away, so even if it was an immediate failure, it was still about an hour of extra down time for the Mrs from the Napless Wonder). To my shock, she quite enjoyed the 2D second-run screening of Ice Age 3 and laughed at Scrat’s antics. Since then, we’ve done it from time to time (Toy Story 3, Despicable Me, etc), with general success (she was bored silly by Cats and Dogs 2, mainly due to the lack of cats). I don’t know how much she follows from a narrative point of view, but she remembers the characters and knows when stuff is scary (she was not pleased with the opening of Tangled). I have to admit at this point it’s more for me than for her. I get to see a movie I want to see without the babysitting hassle, she gets to sit in a dark theater and eat popcorn with dad and/or mom. I think she likes the experience of movie-going more than the actual movies we see. It’s all Jake and the Neverland Pirates to her at this point.

    As for Rango, she was quite terrified of the trailer (“I don’t want to see the lizard move!”), so I’ll be seeing that one without her, alas.

  20. berg says:

    there was that point in the script where a character calls a telegram a mammogram and the 8 year old girl sitting next to me laughed at that …..

  21. LexG says:

    If you guys would rather look at a lizard than Vanessa Hudgens…

  22. It’s a sound concept Lex, but Hudgens never did much for me. On a purely prurient level, Olesya Rulin or Ashley Tisdale (preferably with her old nose) were the reasons to sing-along at East High.

  23. IOv3 says:

    The way you frame your review is pretty great David, because it can be used as a tool against other reviewers and their love of film. Seriously, it plays right into a great point Lex has made about most of these film blogger types not really loving film. Especially some guy out there that seemed to get nothing from the movie other than it’s pretty, but that seems to be who writes about movies most these days… people who really don’t like or love movies.

  24. NickF says:

    I think the last Blu-ray I watched was The Social Network. Before that, there was a trailer for Beastly and it looked wretched. Considering the lead actor and how highly he thinks of himself, after this movie bombs we can hopefully not hear from him again.

    I sincerely hope he wasn’t bitching about Olyphant getting paid more than him.

  25. anghus says:

    nice review.

    i’m looking forward to this. first animated film i’ve seen in awhile that has any kind of appeal.

  26. LYT says:

    “Avoiding spoilers, I do have a question about the Spirit of the West: What are the intellectual property ramifications of that? I’m sure the bases are covered but would they have had to pay the, uh, originator of that character?”

    Pretty sure that’s covered by “parody as free speech” laws, which also allow films like DISASTER MOVIE to feature Batman and Indiana Jones as characters.

    Or, in the animated realm, think of the scene in ALADDIN where Robin Williams’ genie specifically impersonates celebrities of the day.

  27. cadavra says:

    Lex, these things are HUGE overseas. Even a turkey like ICE AGE 3 did over half a billion-with-a-B internationally. People would rather see cartoons because the best of them are smart, imaginative and capable of taking us to places we’ve never been, while those moronic teenpix you dote on can only recycle the same feeble old gags about poop and barfing. I’ll take a rat that wants to be a chef over some lame-ass teen-vampire crap any day of the week.

  28. LexG says:

    I wouldn’t know because I’m sure as shit not gonna go sit down for a cartoon with a bunch of brats running up and down the aisles crying all the way through it.

    Also, yeah, I’m not FOUR.


  29. David Poland says:

    Go after 7p, Lex.

    Besides, when did the state start allowing you to be near four-year-olds again?

    (that was set up on the tee by you, Lex… too easy… price of playing a perv on the web)

  30. Krillian says:

    My first movie was Snow White. I was 3 1/2, and all I remembered a couple years later were the curtains closing, but with the scenes from the movie they’d show on Wonderful World of Disney sometimes, I’m not sure what I really remembered. Second movie, right after I turned 4, was Star Wars, and I’ll always remember the guy in line noticing me in a Jawa t-shirt and R2-D2 socks saying “Looks like you’re ready to see this.”

    As for taking kids, I wouldn’t say there’s a point before they’re 3 years old. My girl didn’t mind any video in front of her when she was 2, but now that she’s 3 1/2, she’s decided Secret of NIMH is too scary, and 1952’s Alice in Wonderland’s a hoot.

  31. IOv3 says:

    Yeah my first memory as a human being is that of Obi Wan in a lightsaber duel against Vader. So yeah, kids do know what the hell is going on when they watch a film, and if you show a Saw film to a kid. You are guaranteed to get one confused fucking kid or make him the horror kid at school.

  32. Foamy Squirrel says:

    The first movie memory I have is of “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” when I lived in the UK around 4 years old.

    I remember the scene where people start fainting from being exposed to its toxic blood. I thought The Beast had farted and they were passing out from the smell.

  33. Proman says:

    Regarding the Oscar thing, it’s actually more complicated then that. The thing is, AMPAS changed the eligibility rules since a motion captue Monster House got a nomination. Now, a movie has to meet a certain animation percantage requirement. We’ll see how that works out.

  34. actionman says:

    verbinski is one of the most underrated filmmakers out there

  35. hcat says:

    The French are just as entrhalled with Disney as we are. Animation does gangbusters over there, plus they are one of the few other nations that have successful homegrown animated films (those arthur and the invisible movies).

    And Lex, you hated animation as a kid because animation sucked. You had a choice between Hanna Barbara on tv or third rate disney in theaters (with the exception of Rescuers, with I like quite a bit). That you might give a pass to something like National Treasure because it is live action but outrightly dismiss up because it is animated is idiocy since they are both made for the exact same audience. And speaking of audience, I am sure Rango was made with more consideration for the adult audience than Beastly was.

  36. LexG says:

    Once again for the cheap seats:

    I like looking at REAL PEOPLE. Like Vanessa Hudgens or Nicolas Cage or Emily Blunt or Matt Damon or whoever. Real. As in ACTORS AND ACTRESSES on a set or a stage doing actual things. When it’s animated, my mind glazed over. It’s nothing I can relate to. I have no interest in it. My brain literally WILL NOT focus on what I am seeing, because I have ZERO interest.

    It’s like making me try to watch HOCKEY. I just DO NOT GIVE A SHIT, no investment, it’s not something I’m interested in, so I zone out. Even the dullest, lamest eighth-tier romcom, if it has GOOD LOOKING WOMEN I WANT TO BANG, or cool dudes who I can live through vicariously, I have a POINT OF INTEREST. Even if it’s BOUNTY HUNTER. Conversely, even the best cartoon, again: I DO NOT CARE.

    I don’t know why this concept bothers so many people. Not like there’s a lot of film critics who give a totally fair shake to extreme horror movies. It’s just an ACCEPTED FACT that critics don’t like them, that a lily-livered squeamer like Ken Turan can just SIT THEM OUT ENTIRELY because it’s guaranteed he’ll hate it.

    How come critics can’t sit out animinated movies if it’s just not their thing?

  37. cadavra says:

    We’re not bothered, Lex, merely puzzled…that someone who claims to be such a hardcore movie-lover would dismiss an entire art form out-of-hand. I can understand Turan not wishing to subject himself to blood and severed body parts flying across the screen, but he doesn’t avoid all horror movies as a result. To just simply hate all animation doesn’t register in a practical sense. Hey, but if it makes you happy to do so, God bless.

  38. Maxie says:

    Go easy on LexG, I don’t know what’s going on his life, but it’s clear it ain’t good. Have pity.

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