Sunday, December 11, 2011

Rango

Grade: 51 (C+)

There’s something immediately irritating about casting Johnny Depp as a chameleon. Depp was hailed in the 1990s as one of the finest actors of his generation, a fascinating presence willing to change himself for every role. That Depp is long gone, replaced some time in the mid-2000s by a shtick-laden self-parody, rarely willing to go beyond doing variations on his famous Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka characters. Rango, Depp’s latest collaboration with Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski, is a film that thinks itself terribly clever in many ways, not the least in casting Depp as a chameleon. It is mistaken.

Rango (Depp) is a pet chameleon who considers himself a master thespian. He is accidentally freed in the unforgiving Mojave-desert, where he comes upon a town called Dirt. The town is in the middle of a drought, and when Rango pretends to be a hero from the West, they buy into his act. The mayor (Ned Beatty), it turns out, is dumping water in the desert as a way to control the town. It’s up to Rango, his girl (Isla Fischer), and the townspeople to save the day.

If the plot sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it was taken directly from Roman Polanski’s classic noir Chinatown and moved to a Western setting. Beatty’s turtle-mayor even looks like John Huston’s villainous character from the earlier film. The Chinatown plot isn’t the only movie-reference. The western-setting plays like a cross between High Noon and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Clint Eastwood’s famous “Man with No Name” character shows up as the “Spirit of the West” (voiced by Timothy Olyphant). The score often mimics Ennio Morricone’s music from Sergio Leone’s westerns. Rango looks like an odd cross between a lizard and Hunter S. Thompson of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fame (Depp played a fictionalized version of Thompson in Fear and Loathing’s film adaptation, and the character makes an appearance here). It’s all a bit heavy for a kids film, and none of the references are particularly clever.

The film is also hampered by a wildly inconsistent tone, which shifts from “manic” to “playful” to “dark” to “light”. The humor is ranges from movie references to lowbrow humor to slapstick, and it’s hard to get a hold of what the movie wants to do. The film’s message, that legends are rarely what they seem, is finally inconsistent with the film’s incessant references legendary movie characters and plots. If Rango is livelier and more involving than most of Depp’s latest movies, it is because the animation is so vivid and the characters so bizarrely grotesque (a mariachi band of owls is particularly memorable). It isn’t enough to save the film, but at least it makes it a reasonably engaging experience.

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