Why, you ask, would a self-promoted animation agnostic opt to see Rango? Needing a light-hearted and colorful palette-cleanser between Netflix viewings of Taxi Driver and The Warriors compels a man to resort to desperate measures, though in truth Gore Verbinski's foray into Pixar territory has more in common with that kind of adult fare than one might expect. An oddball Polanski-Leone mashup, Rango chronicles a journey of self-actualization for a day-dreaming lizard protagonist (voiced by Johnny Depp, but you already knew that) who becomes the sheriff of a Western town occupied by assorted creepy-crawlies in the midst of a deadly drought. It's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly meets Chinatown, with a menagerie of desert critters (possums, bats, armadillos) less engagingly repulsive than the likes of Tuco or Noah Cross, yet generally amusing enough to hold your attention.
Or, at least, the attention-span of adults. Rango is a good illustration of how disaster-proof Hollywood fare has become: the last time an alleged kiddie movie ended up being so kid-unfriendly, it went by the name of Babe: Pig in the City and was a megaton bomb. Movie marketing is too savvy to allow that sort of thing to happen anymore. Rango's been hyped as a "Johnny Depp movie" (to the point where reviewers are giving the impression that he's actually in the film), with trailers suggesting quite the bouncy entertainment. The bounce is there, all right, but it just barely propels the narrative over a surprising amount of visual grotesqueries (talking road-kill) and out-of-place scatological humor (a mammogram joke in an animated movie is, I think, a first). A disgusted mother taking her young son out of the theater afterward said, "Thank God we didn't pay full price for that!" Still, they'd been enticed enough to come.
The second-half of the movie was more involving than the first -- maybe because its free-associative spirit settles into something more substantial, or maybe because I finally moved a few rows down from the teenage couple necking in the disabled section directly behind me. (From the looks of it, they were fully mobile.) Rango doesn't have the dizzying highs of Babe: Pig in the City; Verbinski's not a crackpot visionary like George Miller. At his best, he's an able showman with a flair for viual slapstick: the action set-piece halfway into the picture echoes Apocalypse Now (with a banjo cover of Ride of the Valkyries), the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the climactic pursuit from Miller's The Road Warrior. Verbinski also brings in a dash of emotional heft when Rango encounters The Spirit of the West, a.k.a. Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name (well-voiced by Timothy Olyphant). The scene is a standard movie trope -- the hero's encounter with a sage during a point of crisis -- yet The Spirit's suggestion that we are what we do is fairly profound. So is his alluring description of heaven, which apparently has something to do with Kim Novak and Pop-Tarts.
Rango occupies a welcome middle-ground between Pixar's manic blandness and David Lynch's strenuous eccentricity. If you're going to reference pop-culture, the references in Rango are just unexpected enough to work. (The only missed opportunity was a Polanski-voiced cameo for a knife-wielding midget: "You're a nosy fella, ain't ya?" could have been easily included without breaking the mood.) All the same, I am growing weary of movies that flatter our knowledge of other movies; it's moved to the opposite extreme of American cinema from a generation ago, where film characters usually spoke about films they'd seen in vague generalities. ("I liked that character." "Well, I liked the other character"....) I'm not asking for a return to hermetically-sealed cinema. An original idea or two, though, might be a nice change of pace.