A mysterious stranger arrives in a remote outpost and protects desperate townsfolk from villainous elements. It's a staple setup of Westerns, both traditional and newfangled, and few iterations of the genre could be judged more novel than "Rango" (Paramount), a cartoon adventure populated by desert fauna.
Paying homage to classics such as "High Noon"—as well as to the spaghetti Westerns that put Clint Eastwood on the map in the 1960s—this comparatively edgy movie targets family audiences, yet is better suited to adults. In fact, even many of them will be put off by the script's passing, but nonetheless ill-advised, foray into religious humor.
So, once again, the marketing of a Hollywood release belies its content. In addition to anything else, centering as it does on a lonely chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp), "Rango" would befuddle and occasionally bore children, when not scaring them.
On the plus side, in their first animated feature, the special-effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic have fashioned a visually striking picture without using 3D technology. And although derivative, the script is clever and literate, even when resorting to toilet gags, which it does fairly often.
Reteaming with Depp, star of his "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, director Gore Verbinski puts considerable emphasis on the surreal aspects of the hero's search for an identity, particularly in dream sequences that have a psychedelic tinge.
Following a highway mishap, Rango, as the domesticated pet soon dubs himself, wanders into a Mojave Desert community that's experiencing a severe drought. A teller of tall tales, mostly because he craves social interaction, he poses as a brave gunfighter and becomes sheriff of the town of Dirt.
This parched hamlet is home to a menagerie of colorful critters native to the harsh environment. They include The Mayor, a wheelchair-bound tortoise (voiced by Ned Beatty), who appears to be hoarding water, plus the comely lizard Beans (voice of Isla Fisher), who is struggling to save her late father's ranch.
The spiritual content, though slight, is distinctly mixed and nets out in the negative column. Initially, for instance, Rango is encouraged to embark on a spiritual quest by an armadillo called Roadkill (voice of Alfred Molina).
But in a later scene—reminiscent of a revival meeting and calculated to disconcert viewers of all denominations—the townspeople are shown venerating the water-yielding "Holy Spigot." A reference to the "face of God" during this episode approaches outright blasphemy.
Nor does Rango's brief recitation of the Lord's Prayer while fearfully crossing the desert earlier on in the movie register as entirely sincere.
The film contains some fairly intense cartoon violence, brief irreverent and frequent toilet humor, occasional innuendo and sexual references, an inaudible crude term and at least one instance of crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG—parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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