Review: Rango (2011)

Director: Gore Verbinski

****

Watching Rango, one can imagine Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski downing flaming drambuies between takes on Pirates of the Caribbean, discussing their affections for westerns and Hunter S. Thompson, and wondering how to make a script out of it. Animation does not sound like the ideal medium for a story with such sophisticated and varied influences. It’s kids stuff, right? Verbinski clearly disagrees.

Rango (Johnny Depp) is a quirk-fest of a character, straight out of Depp’s back catalogue. He aspires to be an actor, but it’s not too easy when you’re someone’s pet chameleon and lacking in company. His ramblings and delusions play like Gonzo streams of consciousness. Your tolerance of this characters’ ramblings may depend on your appreciation of Gonzo writing and/or Johnny Depp, but there’s no denying that the most striking thing about Rango is the look and design of the film. Much time has clearly been invested in creating each and every character. Even without 3D, the scales of Rango’s skin look so real you could touch them. Textures and landscapes are beautifully rendered in one of the most visually impressive CG-animated features to date. The maturity of the technology used reflects the more adult nature of the story. Rango gets separated from his owners in the Mojave desert, and stumbles across the town of Dirt, a dusty hovel populated by gruff and wizened creatures, including huffy heiress Beans (Isla Fisher), cute little Priscilla (Abigail Breslin) and all lorded over by aged turtle Mayor (Ned Beatty). Rango’s flights of fancy endear him to the crowd; before long, his tall tales have made him sheriff. Considering this socially maladjusted little reptile’s pampered nature, this can’t end well.

The dazzling visuals are in service of a story that is not clichéd, but has definitely been seen before. The town’s limited water supply has mysteriously run out, and once a character is drowned in the middle of the desert, Rango sets out to discover why. Forget it, Rango, it’s Chinatown. Unabashedly borrowing from Roman Polanski’s masterwork (Beatty’s turtle looks and sounds just like Noah Cross), John Logan’s script is not a dumbed-down treatment of Robert Towne. There is plenty of intelligence and many wonderful characters to keep the homage afloat. Couple this surprisingly pathos-filled script with Verbinski’s brilliant visual panache (for example, a magnificent chase scene featuring a covered wagon and rabbits riding bats to the tune of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’) and something special is born.

All the cast performed their lines with each other, as opposed to reading and recording them, thus giving the animators a reference point and giving the most expression to the performances. Depp is hilariously touching, whilst the supporting cast are brilliantly rounded and realised. Rango works well as a comedy and a western (Sergio Leone and Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead are obvious influences), but also as a reflection on self-discovery and sense of place, as Rango’s lies about his hoodlum ways threaten to derail him. Along with this thematic weight, some risqué humour and dark characters (notably Bill Nighy’s scary Rattlesnake Jake), Rango is either too frightening or too confusing for anyone under 10. Most everyone else, however, should find plenty to like in this melting pot of delightful irreverence. We can stop here; this is Rango country!

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