March 6, 2011 -- This is a funny, overlong animated western spoof with a lot of movie in-jokes and references to many other films, including “Cat Ballou,” “Chinatown,” “A Fistful of Dollars,” “High Noon,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and many others. Long for an animated film at 107 minutes, it seems more like two hours plus due to its slow pace, but it is never dull, thanks to sharp characterizations, wonderful artwork, witty dialog and comic set pieces.
Borrowing its water-shortage theme from “Chinatown,” (one line of dialogue is taken almost verbatim from that film) along with a character, Tortoise John, who looks and sounds a lot like John Houston's iconic character Noah Cross, this story is set in the town of Dirt, which exists in an Old West Twilight Zone dimension just across the road from modern cities, golf courses and housing developments. A stranger wanders into town, a chameleon who calls himself Rango, telling tall tales of gunfights in which he has killed multiple villains with a single bullet. He is appointed sheriff after luckily dispatching a deadly hawk. He soon discovers something strange going on, a drowned man in a dry desert (another plot detail borrowed from “Chinatown”) and other signs of water being where it should not be. As he begins to crack the mystery, he becomes a target of corrupt elements in the town.
Rango also falls for a pretty lizard, Beans, who goes into trances at odd times. He also meets a prophetic armadillo on a Don Quixote-like quest for the fabled Spirit of the West. He must also face a deadly, writhing quick-shot artist with fangs, Rattlesnake Jake, who looks a little like Lee Van Cleef, the villain of the classic western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” When all hope is lost, he finds inspiration in the mystical Clint Eastwood-like character, the Spirit of the West. I could have sworn I heard the voice of Clint Eastwood saying something like “A man can't walk away from his own story” in one scene, but according to the credits, this was spoken by actor Timothy Olyphant of “Live Free or Die Hard.”
All along Rango's journey from schmuck to hero he is shadowed by four instrument-playing, singing owls who keep predicting Rango's imminent demise like a greek chorus (or like Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye in “Cat Ballou”). Rango himself acts a lot more like Don Knotts than Randolph Scott. He is none too brave and has a bad habit of talking himself into trouble. While the pace of the film is slow, the colorful characters, witty dialog, movie references and beautiful artwork make this a pony ride worth taking. This film rates a B.
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