Lizards and light dance in 'Rango'
It was somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, where "the drugs began to take hold" in the Johnny Depp adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'.
In the manic, animated 'Rango', which stars Depp as a chameleon, our coordinates are similar, and the hallucinogens are well under way. It's as though the drug-conjured lizards of 'Fear and Loathing' have been contracted by Hollywood and tasked to make a Western.
Go West, young reptile.
But 'Rango' proceeds from a presumably more sober place: the mind of director Gore Verbinski, who helmed the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' trilogy. It's his first animated film, but if you recall Depp's Jack Sparrow, you'll note that Verbinski is well acquainted with cartoon. 'Rango' is also a first animated feature for the effects house Industrial Light & Magic.
Together, they've created perhaps the most cinematic animated film since Pixar's 'Ratatouille'. As a slapstick comedy, it doesn't have the emotion resonance of a Pixar film, but it's a visually stunning, endlessly inventive, completely madcap Western, made with obvious love for the genre.
'Rango' begins as movies should: with a Mariachi band of musical owls. Our narrators, they introduce the film and our hero, an early hint at the self-consciousness pervading the wink-filled "Rango."
We find our chameleon protagonist in full theatrical flight, turning his pet lizard tank into a film set, with supporting roles played by an inanimate fish toy and a palm tree: "Acting is reacting," he knowingly professes to no one.
With a wide, flat Don Rickles mouth and two giant bowl-shaped eyes, Rango, clad in a red Hawaiian shirt, doesn't look like your normal animated hero. We quickly learn that he's a precocious young actor whose life cooped up as a pet has habituated his imagination to flights of fancy. He is badly in need of an audience.
Rango is bounced out of his cage by a bump in the road and -- in a beautifully done scene -- tossed from the back seat of his unseen owners onto a Mojave Desert road, where he comes careening to a stop atop a broken piece of glass.
Spurred by an "enlightenment"-seeking armadillo (Alfred Molina), he sets out on a journey of self-discovery that includes momentarily landing on the windshield of the "Fear and Loathing" convertible, with Depp's former character inside.
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