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Rango (2011)

Dry Noon

To me, the only thing interesting about Rango is the question it poses about Westerns: Should people stop making them?  The film makes a strong case for shutting down the genre completely, along with, well, pretty much every other type of movie; at least until the so-called "talent" behind them comes up with something new or interesting to watch.  Bear in mind while reading this review that I'm the guy who couldn't stand True Grit.

Rango's trailers would have you believe that it's about an awkward iguana named Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) who's made sheriff of a dusty old town after inadvertantly killing a menacing hawk.  That sort of happens, but only after the film trudges through four uninteresting, pointless openings.  A quartet of Mariachi owls begin their narration by informing us that this is the story of a deceased lizard hero.  It's a bold move for a children's film that was most recently used in Disney's Tangled; the difference is here is that Rango doesnt' die--doesn't even come close; it's a stupid joke that the owls play on us, with a "What-me-worry" shrug at the end.  But we don't know that at the outset.  The lizard's going to die, we think, so let's get to the tragic Western tale leading up to it.

Before that, though, let's detour into the three-minute play Rango puts on in his terrarium.  He has great, dramatic ideas for his co-stars, a defective wind-up fish and headless, bottomless Barbie doll, but none of his excitement makes its way out of the screen and into the audience.  I sat in the theatre wondering if this would be the movie to break my Never Walk Out policy, and also marveling at how an un-entertaining three minutes can seem like a lifetime.

Not to worry!  Rango's terrarium explodes out the back of the family car in which it was precariously placed, following a near-accident on a Nevada highway.  Finally, I thought, a sense of time and place. But, wait, isn't this a Western?

Yep, but hold on.  Before we get there, we must endure Rango's encounter with a run-over armadillo (Alfred Molina), who points him in the direction of a desert town in which he can score some much-needed water.  The armadillo goes on and on (and on and on) about a mystical figure who roams the desert, until he's interrupted by Rango's getting swept away in the fury of more traffic--which briefly pins him to the windshield of Hunter S. Thompson's Red Shark (complete with a zoned-out Dr. Gonzo in the back seat).  It's an easy, obvious nod to Depp's friendship with the dead legend, and still has nothing to do with the movie being a Western.

At last, Rango sets off to find water.  But his journey is once again interrupted by his run-in with the hungry hawk.  If you're a fan of Johnny Depp screaming in a Kermit the Frog voice for minutes on end while his cold-blooded avatar acts out Looney Tunes' greatest hits, then I'm sure this section will have you hyperventilating through long, high-pitched girly-giggles (as it did for the guy sitting behind me, who was the only one in the theatre reacting to this scene).  Rango escapes, of course, and continues on his way.

Before he reaches the town of Dirt, though, he meets Beans, a spunky lizard who has the unfortunate habit of freezing for a minute without notice or provocation.  The only thing remarkable about Beans is Isla Fisher's horrendous--let me type that again, in all-caps--HORRENDOUS "folksy, Old-West" accent. The Australian actress has done great work in other movies, but Jesus Christ, is she awful here.  Other than that, Beans is just the Independent Girl Who Don't Need No Man Until She Falls In Love With the Lovable Rogue that we've seen in every bad rom-com of the last decade.

Where are we, now?  Oh, yes, thirty minutes into the run-time, and we've finally made it to the Western portion of our Western.  Allow me to break down the rest of the story briefly, so as to spare you the gross hour-and-fifteen minutes to which the main paper-thin plot is stretched: Rango becomes sheriff after defeating the hawk.  He goes up against the evil mayor (Ned Beatty), who schemes to siphon off the town's water supply for his own Las Vegas-style development deeper into the desert.  Rango fights the mayor's goons and, through scenes too tedious to recount here, loses the trust of the townsfolk.  He later regains confidence, returns to Dirt, and defeats the mayor while also restoring water to the town.

There's also a shootout with a giant demon snake (Bill Nighy) and a desert vision in which Clint Eastwood shows up dressed as The Man with No Name and imparts wisdom before driving off in a golf cart that spills Oscars out the back.

Now, a hell-born snake bandit, Clint Eastwood, and a wind-up fish may sound like intriguing elements to inject into a Western, but the problem director Gore Verbinski and screenwriter John Logan have is that they've simply affixed pop-culture Post-it Notes to a mediocre Western plot skeleton and re-branded it as hip and irreverent.  But Rango is just Shrek for the gunslinger set, minus the kid-friendliness and with a lower caliber of jokes.

I wouldn't take a kid to see Rango; not because of anything particularly frightening, but because of the mind-numbing boredom they're likely to endure.  At an hour and forty-seven minutes, the movie is, at best, directionless and desperate; at worst, it's just plain dull.  I could feel Verbinski and Logan asking themselves, "How do we liven up all these cliches?"  The answer, apparently, is to make the cookie-cutter characters into animals and insert one of Jack Sparrow's trip scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean 3.

On top of that, Rango doesn't look very kid-friendly.  Besides Rango's bright green skin, most everything else in the picture has an aggressively dirty, craggy appearance, like a Barstow homeless shelter's revival of Oklahoma.  I was excited to see the film because it looked from the previews like nothing I'd seen before--which, from a visual standpoint is still true--but the eye candy serves a confused narrative that is at once too hackneyed to stimulate the brain and too stream-of-consciousness, I'd imagine, to reach its target audience (I also didn't appreciate the fact that the mayor looks and sounds so much like Monster's Inc.'s villain, Waternoose--also a kindly old man who turns out to be a scum bag).  The suits at Paramount and Nickelodeon Films probably thought this would be a bold, new direction for animated features; instead we're left with Yo! Gabba Gabba Presents: Chinatown in the Old West Theme Park (without any of the fun or coherence that title implies).

Which brings me back to my original question: Should anyone bother with Westerns anymore?  We have a rich history of great films to watch, which make Hollywood's latest two examples appear shabbily sideways in comparison.  The entire genre seems like an anachronism anyway: How many people under the age of fifty do you know who grew up wanting to be a cowboy because of all the Westerns they enjoyed in their youth?  It's a rather dick-ish question, but it's an honest one.

Occasionally, you'll get Joss Whedon transplanting the Old West to outer space in Serenity, or the Cohen Brothers delivering a modern take on the manly-men values of our lawless past in No Country for Old Men.  But when it comes to straight-up Stranger-Rides-Into-Town-and-Orders-a-Sarsaparilla-Before-the-Big-Shootout-in-the-Middle-of-Town, how many more iterations must we endure before audiences say, "Enough, already?"  If you doubt the formula will ever get old, imagine a third Tranformers sequel in which Shia LaBoeuf faces down a handkerchief-wearing Starscreamwith a six-shooter (actually, I'd probably pay to see that).

Is it ludicrous to suggest that we erase an entire genre of filmic storytelling?  Probably, but refusing to consider it just opens us up to decades of variations on Sergio Leone's well-worn themes and tropes, as well as the inevitable remake of The Searchers in 3D, where half the characters are CG Gummi Bears (all voiced by Johnny Depp) and the other half are fourth-generation reality stars dressed, inexplicably, as Captain Jack Sparrow.

Fun Fact:  This weekend sees the release of three movies starring the leads from I Am Number Four: Timothy Olyphant voices The Man with No Name in Rango; Alex Pettyfer headlines Beastly; and Teresa Palmer plays the Unobtainable Girl of Topher Grace's Dreams in Take Me Home Tonight.