Rango: Just Another Smug, Meta Cartoon 

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Rango
Directed by Gore Verbinski

Like the kids sitting near me in a crowded all-media screening of Rango, I came in hoping to be transported, and left in stunned silence. Gore Verbinski is making much of how his first animated feature is different than anyone else's, but it feels like every other reflexively meta, smugly ironic, pop culture-studded cartoon movie with a cut-and-paste plot and a tediously hawked moral.

Rango is the first full-length feature done by Industrial Light and Magic, which turned out to be ready for its close-up. The landscape and lighting are beautifully rendered, just exaggerated enough to feel almost real (while registering as a pungent distillation of nearly every Western scene you've ever seen onscreen), and dramatic simulated camerawork, like the "crane shot" that whooshes us skyward with a hawk, does its part to amp up the excitement. That hawk is good for some just-scary-enough yet slapstick chase scenes, and a gigantic rattlesnake pushes the scary up a notch or two, coiling itself into a scene almost as ominously as the basilisk in the latest Harry Potter movie. There are some nicely playful little touches, too, like when Rango—a chameleon who's just another frustrated actor/director until his terrarium falls out of the family car in the middle of the Mojave Desert and he finds himself starring in a real-life Western—comes right up to the screen and his breath fogs the lens of the imaginary camera we're looking through.

But Verbinski's penchant for piecing together movies from shards of pop culture clichés overshadows everything else. Rango gets its main theme ("Control the water and you control everything") and villain from Chinatown, its Greek-chorus musicians from Cat Ballou, and its subtlety from Three Amigos. Also in the mash-up are undigested lumps of classic Westerns-Sergio Leone's Man with No Name movies, Lawrence of Arabia, The Road Warrior, and High Noon, to name just a few-plus a couple of one-offs, like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (a nod to Johnny Depp, who does the voice for Rango).

Verbinski says he made the movie for "the child within," but Rango crams in too many homages and grown-up jokes (prostate exams? Really?) to keep the child without wholly entranced, while its toddler-level storyline is too obvious for adults. And a couple of overlong chase scenes are likely to tire people of any age, since they try too hard to mimic live action instead of making use of the blank screen animation offers to creative minds.

As in Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Depp is the biggest pearl in a rotten oyster. Rango's scaly skin makes him the most realistic-looking of the animals in the film, and Depp's walk-in closetful of voices inspire a wide range of expressions and postures that make the little green guy pretty endearing. The other actors do good voice work too, but the characters they play are more stereotypical: the cute female lizard Rango falls for on sight (Isla Fisher), the slinky bad girl who's literally a fox (Claudia Black), the Walter Huston-like old coot who plays spoons and speaks in homilies (Alex Manugian), etc. They're less expressive physically too, some suffering from that stuffed-animal look of the early Stars Wars characters.

But the worst thing about Rango is its cynicism. It's bad enough to smother our hope of seeing something truly new and imaginative, but do you really have to do it while flakking a generic "Keep hope alive" message?

Opens March 4

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