Blu-ray Review: Rango

The first animated movie by Pirates of the Caribbean auteur Gore Verbinski, Rango isn’t your average cartoon. Above all else, it’s a western, having so many references, tributes, and in-jokes about the old American frontier that you expect Frankie Laine to come in on the soundtrack, singing his theme song from Tim Conway’s 1967 sitcom of the same name. The movie also manages to nod to John Huston, Apocalypse Now, the Star Wars finale, and much more. I doubt that anyone could pick up all the allusions in one go.

When the dust has settled, most viewers (especially younger ones) will think of Rango as, pure and simple, a Johnny Depp movie. And he certainly delivers, lending his voice to a chameleon who is bounced out of his safe terrarium home when his car-driving owner has to brake to avoid hitting an armadillo. He’s stranded in the Mojave Desert until another creature takes him to a town called Dirt. The town is suffering from a water shortage, and the corrupt mayor (Ned Beatty) lies through his teeth about what is going on. The mayor appoints Rango as sheriff.

There’s the usual struggle of good guy vs. bad guy (slipping upside down at the end), and everything turns out well, with the good guy getting the girl and riding off into the sunset. Sort of. There are lots of Looney Tunes-ian chases along the way to liven things up, and there’s even a vision of the Spirit of the West — a guy in a poncho who looks and sounds exactly like Clint Eastwood but is voiced by Timothy Olyphant.

Overall, Rango is a movie I admire more than outright love. It’s so realistic in using desert animals and birds as characters that they come across seeming a little bit unsavory, like down-and-out vermin. You’ll laugh at and with them, but you wouldn’t want to have them over for dinner. Even the amiable mariachi quartet of owls doesn’t elicit the kind of warm, cuddly feeling that you get from many Pixar characters. Then again, if reptiles and rodents are your thing, you can bump up my movie rating accordingly.

The realism is highlighted by the perfect picture on this 2.40:1 Blu-ray. The town of Dirt wasn’t named by accident. There’s dirt everywhere. The clothes are dirty, the fur and scales are dirty, and the streets are made of dirt. I have respiratory issues, and I nearly felt a coughing spell coming on. Also impressive is the natural-looking water. But best of all are the dark scenes lit by torch and/or lamp, boasting deep blacks and shadow detail galore. You get the impression that these scenes are straight out of a live-action film.

Unlike most other animated movies, where the voices are recorded in various isolated places, the cast of Rango actually put on costumes and acted out the story. This makes for a more spontaneous voice track than usual. Add in the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix’s fine use of surround and excellent presentation of Hans Zimmer’s score, and you have a disc with reference-quality sound, too.

Extras are quite good. You can engage a storyboard PIP feature for the theatrical cut, or you can listen to a commentary by Verbinski and others during an extended cut. One featurette shows the cast in costume, having a really good time recording their voice tracks; another piece is devoted to the production in general. There are deleted extensions to scenes, but if you’ve watched the extended cut, you’ve already seen them. A mini-doc on the real animals of the desert is very informative, and an interactive tour of Dirt lets you go to various places in the town to retrieve facts on the characters and other trivia.