[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
The trailer for Rango made the movie look unappealing, and I didn't have high hopes when I threw it in the DVD player. Oops: it's awesome.
Rango himself (voiced by Johnny Depp) is a pet chameleon with writer/director aspirations who finds himself marooned in the Mojave. Thirsty, hot, lectured by other fauna and preyed on by a hawk, Rango gets a ride from a petit-mal-prone lizard named Beans, into a town called Dirt; after a chase/misunderstanding involving vending-machine licorice (…I know!), he's made Dirt's sheriff by the Mayor (Ned Beatty), a turtle who has secret plans to annex all the local natural resources, by whatever means necessary.
In addition to that commentary on the haves and have-nots of the global fresh-water supply, Rango also furnishes a nod to Depp's role as Hunter S. Thompson; a send-up of acting workshops in the opening sequence; several stunning animated chases, beautiful nighttime scenes, and a gift for capturing textures, liquids, and light on glass; and verbal and visual gags for kids of all ages. The bird with the prosthetic limb made of a wiffleball is one of my favorites, as well as the fly backstroking in the cactus juice, but I rewound the cemetery sequence three times just to catch all the headstones. (Sheriffs in Dirt, you see, don't tend to live very long. "Sheriff Jurgen / 'OOPS.'" "Sheriff Tucker / Hold My Beer And Watch This." "Sheriff Amos / Thurs – Sat RIP." And towards the back of the graveyard, one reading, "He's Dead Jim." Love it.)
The voice acting is great across the board — Depp's plaintive "T.O., T.O., just a sec" prior to a duel is a highlight — and the hat-tips to other works cracked me up too. The Greek-chorus mariachi birds reminded me of the orchestra bus in Mel Brooks's High Anxiety, and the soundtrack repeatedly refers to Carter Burwell's yodeling runs on Raising Arizona's.
Characters announce, "We're experiencing a paradigm shift!"; minutes later, hundreds of beetles gather to carry an exhausted Rango, Godspell-style. It's funny and pretty and there's something going on in every frame. The last half hour is perhaps too contemplative and atmospheric, but it's nice to look at and I didn't mind.
I liked A Cat in Paris a lot and I wouldn't mind it winning, but Rango is firing on all six cylinders, and should win Best Animated Feature.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.