Courtesy of Paramount Studios
The recent trend in animated movies has been to introduce more adult fare to blend with the childish elements in the plot. Pixar’s “Wall-E” was dense with themes aimed at the adults in the theater, and Dreamworks’ “Shrek” was full of pop-culture references. Paramount’s “Rango” takes the cake for adult content and inside jokes, however.
Rango, the chameleon title character voiced by Johnny Depp, finds himself stranded in the Nevada desert after a traffic mishap (he’s domesticated). Having honed his theatrical skills after years of living in a terrarium, Rango wows the animal citizens of prototypical Western town Dirt with his fabricated tales. After accidentally slaying the hawk that preyed on the town’s residents, he becomes sheriff and learns of the real issue plaguing the municipality: no water.
Rango’s quest to find water is far from “The Land Before Time,” however. He and his posse, including desert iguana Beans (Isla Fisher), must maneuver both gunfire and crooked politics to get to the bottom of this dried-up well. The corrupt government plot almost sounds like “All the King’s Men,” a reference that most college students won’t get, much less an audience of children.
Most of the references here are gold for a college audience, however. Some of the references are easy: The shootouts occurring at “High Noon” and the appearance of Clint Eastwood’s “Blondie” from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” during a hallucination sequence (which is, by itself, quite abstract). Others, like the themes of “Soylent Green” and the appearance of Raoul Duke from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” might slip by most of the audience, but receive ovations from those in the know.
Granted, these pop culture references won’t deter children. The motley crew of characters will keep them entertained. The variety of characters is the highlight of the film. Rango, with his chameleon eyes swirling in both directions, Priscilla (Abigail Breslin), a child mouse with heavy firepower and Wounded Bird (Gil Birmingham), the prototypical Western Native American character, are each delightful.
The film loses a bit of momentum when it tries too hard to push the PG rating, however. It’s a Western; there will be gunfights, so be it. Kids see that sort of stuff on Looney Tunes anyway. The language is iffy. “Hell” and “damn” aren’t very hardcore, but that doesn’t mean your little brother needs to hear it. Plus, it seems pretty lame duck to a college viewer. When Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), the uber-villain, shows up and starts threatening to drag Rango to hell, claiming he’s from hell, there’s not really an audience it aims for.
The characters and inside jokes in this film are great for a college audience, and the characters will entertain younger audiences just fine. In the meantime, if Paramount is looking for pop-culture references for a sequel, I’ve got some ideas.