REVIEW: Rango [2011]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 107 minutes | Release Date: March 4th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Gore Verbinski
Writer(s): John Logan / John Logan and Gore Verbinski & James Ward Byrkit (story)

“Ain’t no one gonna tango with the Rango”

Director Gore Verbinski knows star Johnny Depp’s penchant for fast-talk rambling only too well. After helming the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, he decided to take an odd turn into animation with the PG-rated Rango, taking his lead with him for the journey. Using a quasi-motion capture technique, the actors actually performed their roles, the footage later animated in character to mimic the motion and expressions of each. So, even though we see an awkward chameleon in a Hawaiian shirt—it’s not the only Hunter S. Thompson reference either—it isn’t hard to imagine Depp lying beneath the scales. All the mannerisms are there as well as the unlikely hero façade akin to Jack Sparrow, a lonely soul who’s first reaction once he’s liked by new friends is to lie and exaggerate in order to make sure they don’t leave him behind.

Very much an old time western feel—an interesting entry point for children into a genre they would likely have no interest in—it begins in our world. You see, Rango (Depp), or the nameless lizard we meet at the start, is a domesticated creature spending his time in a terrarium with a headless Barbie doll and a wind-up orange fish. Stir crazy from a lifetime of solitude behind glass, he has become the director of his world, creating a movie set aesthetic and lifestyle in order to pass the time. With a few plays under his belt and a musical in the works, this delusional thespian talks to the inanimate objects in his tank, giving them direction, praise, and critique. It’s a life he has grown accustomed to, a cushy environment without worry, until a soon-to-be roadkilled creature (Alfred Molina) crosses the road and causes his cage to fall from it’s perch inside his owners car. Crashing to the ground—the sun’s extreme heat making him shed his skin twice and only desert expanse in all directions—this chameleon enters the first real adventure of his life.

The film is narrated in interludes by a mariachi band of Spanish birds singing the ballad of Rango, a creature on the path to certain death. It appears their ominous words will soon occur too as the lizard finds himself prey to a swooping eagle, without water in the sweltering heat, and a tad lacking in charm when it comes to meeting someone who may be able to help him find civilization. Beans (Isla Fisher) just so happens to be out in the desert too, searching for a mysterious water dump she has heard rumor of, needing the cool liquid to sustain her father’s ranch back home in Dirt, itself languishing through an extensive drought. A lizard herself—who has the tendency of freezing mid-sentence when scared rather than change colors like him—she gives into her humanity and offers the stranger a ride into town. A definite fish-out-of-water, Rango’s need to adapt and love of acting finds him inside a saloon cultivating a country walk and accent while telling tall tales of killing seven men with one bullet.

It doesn’t take long for him to become the town’s new hero, affixed with the Sheriff’s star. Tasked to find an answer to the mystery of Dirt’s water, his mouth runs wild and his inexperience fails him as he stumbles and lies to take advantage of the slower folk surrounding him. Some sort of conspiracy is at work as every source of water has dried up, the usual spigot yielding only mud and the local water bank defaulted with only five days worth left. The Mayor (Ned Beatty) tries to instill words of safety, exclaiming they all must stick together and keep hope alive, but soon even the bank reserve is stolen. Rango then leads his citizens on a chase through sand, culminating in an action-packed race against the inbred, thieving, bat-riding gophers. Couple the danger of these enemies with the looming threat of the murderous Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) returning and the town falls into a downward spiral, the cheap words and lack of action on behalf of their new Sheriff discovered to be empty promises.

I was under the impression that Rattlesnake Jake was to be the main villain of the tale, the foil to Rango’s unassuming hero, but his inclusion is only towards the end of the story. Instead, the plot concerns itself with an unknown entity at the root of their dwindling lifeblood. It’s a mystery we’ve seen time and time again throughout cinematic history—memories of L.A. Confidential’s twists and turns came to mind more than once—yet handled in a fun, family-friendly way to possess some semblance of originality. The animation is actually quite stunning, the stylized creature work an odd hybrid of man and animal creating personified versions of the misfit beasts caught inside a lost bottle of time full of gun-toting cowboys and a simpleton public. They are the perfect malleable audience for Rango’s city-bred air of intelligence and worldly travel. It isn’t hard to gain their interest and adulation, but it is to earn their trust once realizing he’s their only chance for survival.

Rango is a love letter to Hollywood westerns, poking fun at their seriousness with a satirical look at many common tropes. The mariachi band is comic relief, their songs adding levity and their threat of our star’s death a running joke; characters like Alex Manugian’s Spoons recalls the squeaky, goofy-voiced drawl of Yosemite Sam cartoons; and a brief cameo by Timothy Olyphant alludes to the titular chameleon’s love of film, but also the genre as the part is for all intents and purposes Clint Eastwood—complete with his hardware in the back of his golf cart. Screenwriter John Logan also plays with making the film meta, adding dialogue ro express what’s happening onscreen like the need for ‘an ironic, unexpected event [to] propel the hero into conflict’. It’s never subtle, nor completely a member of either the kid or adult camp. As an entertaining comedic romp without much heavy lifting, you could do much worse, just don’t expect a new contemporary classic on par with Disney/Pixar. But then I doubt it was their goal anyway.

[1] Left to right: Rango (Johnny Depp) and Beans (Isla Fisher) in RANGO, from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies. Photo credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures © 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) in RANGO, from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies. Photo credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures © 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Left to right: Sergeant Turley (Gore Verbinski), Spoons (Alex Manugian), Wounded Bird (Gil Birmingham), Ambrose (Ian Abercrombie), Elgin (John Cothran), Waffles (James Ward Byrkit), Buford (Blake Clark), Beans (Isla Fisher), and Rango (Johnny Depp) in RANGO, from Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies. Photo credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures. © 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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