Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenplay: John Logan (story by John Logan and Gore Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit)
Stars: Johnny Depp (Rango / Lars), Isla Fisher (Beans), Abigail Breslin (Priscilla), Ned Beatty (Mayor), Alfred Molina (Roadkill), Bill Nighy (Rattlesnake Jake), Stephen Root (Doc / Merrimack / Mr. Snuggles), Harry Dean Stanton (Balthazar), Timothy Olyphant (Spirit of the West), Ray Winstone (Bad Bill), Ian Abercrombie (Ambrose), Gil Birmingham (Wounded Bird), James Ward Byrkit (Waffles / GordyPapa / Joad / Cousin Murt / Curlie Knife Attacker / Rodent Kid), Claudia Black (Angelique), Blake Clark (Buford), John Cothran Jr. (Elgin)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2011
Country: U.S.
Rango Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Copy
RangoA kind of crazed, loving homage to spaghetti westerns, Gore Verbinski’s computer-animated comic adventure Rango lacks the narrative and emotional refinement of Pixar’s best films, but what it loses in coherence and dexterity it gains in pure sensationalism, whether it be visual, verbal, or narrative. The screenplay by John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator), from a story he concocted with Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit (who worked as a storyboard artist on Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy) is the prototypical postmodern mishmash of cinematic tropes, which means the film will be best appreciated by movie buffs who can spot all the sources and in-jokes and see how all the recycled pieces are carefully woven together into a completely unique fabric. Viewers who don’t know the difference between Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone will still find much to enjoy in the film’s antic, sometimes exhausting exuberance, although some of the movie’s more distinct pleasures will fly over their heads or under their radars.

The film begins with a well-constructed nod to its own artifice by introducing our lizard hero, Rango (Johnny Depp), enacting his own dramatic world with a wind-up fish toy and a Barbie torso inside a glass aquarium from which the camera never strays until it flies out the back of his owner’s SUV and smashes on the hot pavement of what we can only surmise is the Arizona desert. This opening sequence, which self-consciously contrasts fantasy and reality, establishes the film’s anything-goes pretense, a tendency that is confirmed only moments later when Rango comes across a semi-squashed armadillo (Alfred Molina) who speaks like a messianic sage while informing Rango about “the Spirit of the West” and giving him a cryptic mission that begins in the ramshackle, dried-up town of Dirt, which serves the mythic role of intermediary between civilization and wilderness. Rango puts his dramatic chops to use as he playacts the role of the western hero, convincing the town’s rough-hewn denizens (which include all manner of desert dwellers, from horny toads to possums to nondescript rodents of every shape and size) that he is a dangerous gunslinger. Naturally, they elevate him to the role of sheriff, a move that is politically motivated by the town’s corrupt mayor (Ned Beatty) as a distraction from his nefarious backroom dealings.

The plot itself, which revolves around the theft of the town’s precious water supply, is lifted straight from Roman Polanski’s despondent neo-noir Chinatown (1974), whose influence also extends to Beatty’s Mayor, a visual and aural dead-ringer for John Huston’s villainous Noah Cross. That is just one of the film’s many, many cinematic allusions, some of which are breathtakingly obvious (such as a wonderfully absurd action sequence involving an army of giant bats that riffs on the “Flight of the Valkyries” aerial assault in Apocalypse Now) to the extremely subtle (Rango literally takes his name from a label that says “Hecho en Durango,” but savvy spaghetti western fans will note its similarity to the name of Franco Nero’s mythic antihero Django). Some of the film’s best moments are the ones in which a strange, surrealist impulse takes over, albeit sometimes within the confines of physical reality (when Rango suddenly sheds layers of skin in the desert heat, the image is alien even as it conforms to biological reality).

Despite the visual and tonal influence of the spaghetti western, those Italian-Spanish co-productions of the 1960s and ’70s that turned the American western on its head by infusing its mythic narrative framework with various shades of nihilism, Verbinski and company are clearly in the redemption business, giving us a nobody playing the role of hero who essentially becomes a hero via his complete commitment to the role (shades of Don Quixote, perhaps?). The literal arrival of the fabled Man With No Name (voiced, alas, by Timothy Olyphant doing his best Clint Eastwood impression, rather than Eastwood himself) is actually a bit of a red herring, since he is probably the least interesting incarnation of the spaghetti western aesthetic. Rather, it is Rango’s ability to take the genre’s darker impulses and find ways to make light of them that keeps the film from sinking into a one-note homage.

Johnny Depp, who is reuniting with his Pirates of the Caribbean director for the first time since At World’s End (2006), is given free reign in his performance, and he runs with Logan’s stylized dialogue, racing through the dense, alliterative prose in a way that makes you laugh out loud, even if you missed half of it (the influence of the Coen Brothers and their love of anachronistic regional dialects and oddball turns of phrase is everywhere, especially as the film arrived in theaters in the shadow of True Grit). Amazingly enough, Depp’s mania allows room for the other performers to shine, as well, including Isla Fisher as Beans, the requisite love interest, whose lizard defense mechanism of freezing in place is humorously mistimed, and Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake, an impossibly large serpentine gunslinger whose gravelly cadences match the threat of his machine-gun rattler. As a whole, Rango doesn’t quite hold together, but with all it has going on, it’s a miracle that it holds together as well as it does, and I can only imagine that repeat viewings will unearth additional layers of its bold mixture of the surreal and the screwball.

Rango Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Copy
This Blu-Ray of Rango includes both the theatrical version and an extended version.
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish, Portuguese
  • Audio commentary by director Gore Verbinski, co-writer James Ward Byrkit, production designer Mark “Crash” McCreery, animation director Hal Hickel, and visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander
  • Breaking the Rules: Making Animation History two-part documentary
  • “Real Creatures of Dirt” featurette
  • Storyboard Reel picture-in-picture option
  • “A Field Trip to Dirt” interactive featurette
  • 10 deleted scenes
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateJuly 15, 2011

    One of Rango’s great strengths is its unique visual design--both photorealistic in the details and yet undeniably cartoonish, which together creates a particularly cool cinematic look--and the 1080p/AVC-encoded high-definition transfer on this Blu-Ray disc does not disappoint. The image is crisp and sharp with outstanding detail, the kind that makes you feel the heat and dust in the air. Repeat viewings turn up all manner of tiny details you likely missed the first time around, which is part of the movie’s pleasure. And, despite the film’s high-tech CGI nature, it has a cinematic look with just the slightest veneer of (faked) film grain. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtrack is also expertly rendered, with clear dialogue, great separation, and a strong low end that gives the aerial assault sequence a real sense of depth and presence.
    You have a number of different viewing options for Rango. You can watch either the original theatrical version or a slightly longer (about 4 minutes) version. While watching the theatrical version, you can opt to utilize a picture-in-picture feature that shows you the original storyboards, and while watching the extended edition you can turn on an informative audio commentary by director Gore Verbinski, co-writer James Ward Byrkit, production designer Mark “Crash” McCreery, animation director Hal Hickel, and visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander. Breaking the Rules: Making Animation History is a comprehensive 48-minute making-of documentary broken into two parts: “The Stage is Set” covers the 16-month pre-production, where the filmmaking team ensconced themselves in a Hollywood Hills mansion and developed the story, characters, and environments, while “Now We Ride” covers the actual process of animating the film at Industrial Light & Magic. All the commentary participants appear in the documentary along with a host of other collaborators, including writer John Logan, cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Hans Zimmer, and stars Johnny Depp and Isla Ficher. “Real Creatures of Dirt” is a 22-minute featurette about the actual desert-dwelling denizens that inspired the characters in the movie, while “A Field Trip to Dirt” is an interactive featurette that allows you to see the completely three-dimensional virtual environment of Dirt created for the film along with the three-dimensional models of all the major characters. There are also 10 deleted scenes, including an alternate ending that would come after the theatrical ending, and the original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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