Pixar’s insistence to feed us on a diet of the very cream that animated film has to offer has, it seems, turned us all into animated film snobs. Even when a fun, beautifully-animated film hits our shores, it too often falls short of the wit and humanity that has now become a trademark for the powerhouse animation studio, as they deftly weave effortlessly emotive stories while steering clear of the aggressively imposed-upon pop-culture references and over-the-top dance numbers that plague so many works of the medium nowadays. Rango, while admirably off-kilter and boasting stellar animation alongside a top-notch vocal rendition from Johnny Depp (redeeming himself for the shambolic The Tourist), feels disappointingly hollow in the middle, and simply not committed enough to its interesting premise.
Rango (Depp) is a chameleon who, during a particularly bumpy car ride, finds himself freed from the confines of his terrarium, washing up by a dilapidated Old West-style town called Dirt. Taking advantage of his anonymity, Rango fashions his own mythic status as a hero figure, telling tall tales to the locals – who range from guitar-strumming owls to hat-wearing rodents – and for a period of time, managing to convince them of his accolades as a lawman. However, when Dirt’s water supply begins to dry up, and the town’s sanctity is threatened by some local gunslingers, Rango must live up to the legend he has created or face certain death.
Rango is certainly entertaining enough as a light jaunt, yet the slyly subversive tone that it positions at the outset is deviated from all-too quickly, resulting in a film that feels neutered and preened to fit a more studio-friendly mold. It is pleasantly surreal to a point, gorgeously animated and well-voiced by all (Abigail Breslin is especially fun as the mouse character), yet the promise of those early scenes never coalesces into something wholly satisfying by the pic’s end. Rather, we get a few unique morsels of characterisation – the existential angst framing the film is unmistakable – though at its heart the film remains a broad, more conventional adventure film with its target aimed squarely at kids, while lacking the multi-faceted narrative that would make it a sure-fire hit with their parents too. The groundwork is there – there are more than several references to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and an entire scene devoted to worshipping Sergio Leone’s work with Eastwood – but the film’s bulk is an overly familiar yarn that doesn’t so much send-up the Western as much as simply transpose the widely-known tropes onto cuter characters.
As a rollicking adventure, Rango does at least provide the basic thrills for the kids, and the countless chases and shootouts are indeed exhilarating – aided by the lack of a shoehorned 3D presentation – yet in this stead it betrays its own early promise, and thus the simplistic humour, including several beguilingly incongruent potty gags (we literally see Rango using a miniature porto-loo at one point), is only intermittently satisfying, while the more wordy, literate gags will probably leave the kids shuffling in their seats. Note that Rango runs in at 107 minutes which, unless you’re crafting an epic, series-capping magnum opus like Toy Story 3, is rather on the long side for a children’s film, no matter how good it is.
While it fundamentally fails to make the most of its peculiar protagonist or its Wild West setting, Rango is admittedly easy to watch and not at all aggravating, for forced pop renditions are nowhere to be found, and the surprising amount of death, destruction and cutting cynicism filling the picture is admittedly refreshing. The flabby middle, however, simply waltzes through the motions of good-vs-bad fluff without providing enough of its own invention; a visual feast it most certainly is, but we’ve seen this type of story a dozen times before, and there’s just not enough variation to render it anything more than a fleetingly entertaining diversion that surely won’t be fondly recalled come 2012′s Animated Feature Oscar.
Rango is an easy film to want to like because it looks fantastic, has Johnny Depp back in the saddle of something resembling good work, and seems to be on the face of it an informed skewering of the conventions of the Western. It’s ultimately a pastiche-by-numbers and doesn’t live up to its full potential, but as a visual treat and one of Depp’s better vehicles of recent years, it delivers the basic goods. Just don’t expect it to linger long after you’ve left the cinema.
Rango is released in the U.K. this Friday.