There’s a strange sort of disconnect one may experience when watching the movie Rango.  That’s because Rango isn’t your typical animated kids’ movie, because we’ve been conditioned for a certain kind of animated movie.  Gore Verbinski assembles an all star ensemble of talent for a movie that has to be viewed in the right light for it to click.  In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Legend of the Guardian: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, where you have a movie that’s on its face seems like just another animated kids’ film, but actually is a different sort of movie entirely.

“A hero who has yet to enter his own story.” –(Mariachi band)

Where Rango risks disconnecting with the traditional audience for such animated fare is that it aims at adults first and kids second.  On its surface, the plot follows what you’d expect:  The Hawaiian shirt-wearing lizard who will become Rango starts off as a pet lizard, traveling across the desert when an accident leaves him separated from his family.  He stumbles across a town named Dirt whose citizens are looking for a hero.  They are ruled by a corrupt mayor behind the drought afflicting their town.

“Every story needs a hero.” –Rango

Johnny Depp as the voice of Rango delivers a performance that begins somewhere around his last Pirates of the Caribbean movie and wanders into a western, while riffing on his appearances in Dead Man and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.  Among the characters who inhabit the town of Dirt we find such distinctive characters as Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), gila-monster henchman Bad Bill (Ray Winstone) and Rango’s love interest, Beans (Isla Fisher).

The movie is Tarantino-esque in how many movies it draws plot elements from: Chinatown, Django, El Topo and any of a number of spaghetti westerns.  And as if aspiring to something more, something deep, the movie moves at a contemplative pace.  Basically Rango was an adult classic western with animated animals that went on too long.  Though it had lots of witty, referential dialogue and visuals, it didn’t quite translate to a kids movie, but rather a clever tribute to the spaghetti westerns.  It almost begs the question about who was this movie made for as children may be too young to get the jokes, the set up, or the pace.

“We all have our journeys to make.” –Armadillo

As a reluctant hero, Rango spends most of the movie first trying to figure out who he is and then trying to figure out how to live into being who he’s called to be.  Joseph Campbell, in his landmark work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, outlined the prototypical path of the hero’s mythological adventure. Campbell defines the journey this way: “A hero ventures forth from the world into a region of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Put another way, the essential story, the monomyth, echoes the story of Christ.

“The path of knowledge is fraught with consequences.” –Armadillo

We see this pattern–separation (the reluctant hero taken from the world that he knows), initiation (the hero tested), and return (the hero returns as conqueror) in many of our great heroic epics: Luke Skywalker (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, RETURN of the Jedi) and The Lord of the Rings (Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers, RETURN of the King). For the hero’s task to be worthy, he must overcome various trials and temptations. The more grand the goal, the greater the difficulties, though it helps to have a guide in one’s quest for enlightenment.  In Rango’s case, it’s an encounter before an alabaster carriage as he has a run-in with the Spirit of the West, a mystic Man With No Name (Timothy Olyphant).

“I don’t even know what I’m looking for.” –Rango

A person can exhaust themselves trying to come up with enough superlatives to describe the CGI animation.  The photorealistic style animation has such a level of texture to it would feel three-dimensional even without being shown in 3-D.

Sometimes Rango felt like a joke I didn’t get.  It seemed a half hour too long, was a bloated production—meandering at times—largely clever, though clearly impressed with itself.  Though technically brilliant, with plenty of pretty to look at, it didn’t have a spark, energy to it that propels it.  Instead it relied on being cool.  Then again, the movie had plenty of intelligence to carry it, often more quirky than funny, like Kung Fu Panda by way of Deadwood.  In other words, a movie clearly ahead of its time which an adult would appreciate more than their kids.  Then again, those of us who had to sit through Finding Nemo 500 times might appreciate a movie ostensibly aimed at “them” that “we” would delight in more.