Rango is a film that shouldn’t work. It’s a droll, adult-oriented Western pastiche featuring a wildly ugly protagonist, from a studio that had never done a full animated feature and a director that had never worked in animation. But it does, and not only that, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen all year.
It helps that the director in question is Gore Verbinski, who masterminded another unlikely property, the Pirates Of The Caribbean films, to global domination. It also doesn’t hurt that the studio in question is Industrial Light And Magic, who have something of a history in dazzling visuals. But most importantly, Rango never compromises, doesn’t talk down to it’s audience and doesn’t shy away from the dark, grotesque or the downright psychedelic.
The script, by Gladiator and Sweeney Todd writer John Logan, keeps things simple, which is important when you’re dealing with mythic Western tropes. A man with no name stumbles by accident into a town in trouble. He takes charge and saves the day, and himself in the process, gaining an identity through his heroic deeds. It’s pretty much every spaghetti Western ever written, and it’s such a familiar setup that we barely question the fact that the players are all desert animals. The town of Dirt is populated by lizards, molerats and a myriad of other furry, scaly critters. The hero, the character who reinvents himself to the townspeople as the stone killer Rango, is a wonky, twisted-up chameleon. The Mexican chorus who narrate the action, and gloomily predict Rango’s demise throughout, are desert finches in mariachi costumes.
The dark, trippy mood of the film is clearly informed by Sergio Leone and the sub-genre he helped invent, and it would fit nicely into a triple bill with films like Django and El Topo. Yes, it’s that skewed. But I’d also argue that it’s heavily influenced by Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. There’s a blink-and-gone cameo from Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, for a start, and Duke was played by Johnny Depp in Terry Gilliam’s film version of the book. Duke’s greatest fear, swarms of bats, also feature.
And of course, there are hallucinations. Lots of them. I’m certain that the armadillo character that sends the chameleon-that-would-be-Rango on his way is a sprit animal. They don’t usually survive encounters with trucks quite so nonchalantly as this one does. Rango’s encounter with the Spirit Of The West towards the end of the film is a beautiful sequence, with sterling voice work from Timothy Olyphant. He had me well and truly fooled. I thought they’d got The Man Himself in to do a cameo.
Voice work throughout is uniformally outstanding. I mentioned in my post on Tangled a few weeks ago that celebrity stunt voice casting frequently doesn’t work. Most of the cast of Rango are skilled character actors, with Bill Nighy and Ned Beatty as the villians of the piece bringing the evil especially well. Johnny Depp fills Rango’s skinny frame well, which I think is down to his willingness to take risks with a performance. Don’t forget, this is the actor that channeled Keith Richard for a role in a pirate film. Depp gives his chameleon skin a jittery, mercurial quality, flashing from panic to mania in an instant.
None of this would matter a jot if the film didn’t look the business. Under the auspices of ILM, of course, it does. It’s bright and colourful, but also textured and moody. Verbinski and his crew aren’t afraid to let things slip into shadow. Dirt is a ramshackle, jerrybuilt place, dust-caked and close to collapse. The desert is bleak and desolate, but also starkly beautiful. The skill of ILM’s design draws you into this world from the very beginning, and you’re never less than immersed. The characters are ugly as all get out, but they are brilliantly animated and you get every flicker of emotion. Voice and animation tally perfectly, and you end up rooting for a wonk-eyed chameleon, his narcoleptic lizard girlfriend and the rest of the motley crew that make up the populance of a tiny place deep in the mojave, slowly dying of thirst. It’s a hell of an accomplishment, and one hell of a film.
If you’re a fan of Westerns, or animation, or druggy trippiness, this should be a no-brainer. But there’s something for everyone in the world of Rango, and it’s worth seeing what you can find on the other side of the road.