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By Matthew Sorrento | March 4, 2011

Warning, western buffs: you may gripe over this film’s “spirit of the west,” a character showing up late to give the title role a boost. With the appearance of this poncho-wearing ‘slinger, we wonder why the film didn’t go for the classic icon, the Duke, instead of the face the helped launch a bloody revisionism. The decision probably addresses politics (Clint’s compassionate conservatism is more neutral than Wayne’s Right-ness) and the younger generation, who may know the grayed Clint better than the long-gone Duke.

“Rango,” the new animated film, certainly has an eye on genre tradition, with enough feeling to please some devotees. Yet like many reference-frenzied films, this one suffers from cultural R.E.M. Refs in “Rango” come from films so varied – from Capra to the career of Johnny Depp (who voices the lead role) – that we wonder if “Rango” is movie crazy or just craving content. The title character, a chameleon-out-of-water who wanders into an anthropomorphic Old West, becomes an unlikely Man of Action after claiming he killed legendary bandit brothers. Depp has fun voicing the role, while a Greek chorus of barely diegetic owls helps the kids keep up. Rango soon meets a prairie girl out to right the rumor of her father’s death, reclaim her ranch, and settle the community’s drought.

With water shortage in the plot, the writers (using a mixed bag smelling like a committee’s scenario) don’t miss the connection to a certain 1974 neo-noir. Add a wheelchair (somehow motorized), hold the incest, and Huston’s Noah Cross has been shoved into another universe. A film so committed (and respectful) to the western flubs by basing itself off another style. Isn’t water conspiracy an issue suitable for developed communities? If so, why center it in a tale of the frontier?

It hardly matters – “Rango” runs rampant and we have fun keeping up.  And remember that “Chinatown” is one of the most studied scripts out there, having appeared in Syd Field’s Screenplay and McKee’s Story. The reference here feels more like a crib than a tribute from fans. When stuck for cohesion, the “committee” told the writers to hit the 101 textbooks. Though the work is wild and somewhat West, I wish they were sent to John Ford and Anthony Mann.

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