Rango may just be the first animated Western/comedy with a cast of characters made up entirely of animals. In fact, I’m sure of it. But does it stand out from the recent deluge of computer animation on the big screen? You can breathe a sigh of relief, because it certainly does. And you won’t be made to wrap a crappy pair of 3-D glasses around your face to enjoy it either.
Our hero is a shy, lonely chameleon – funnily enough an aspiring actor – voiced with infectious bravado by Johnny Depp (The Tourist). After a disorientingly surreal opening, he finds himself in a struggling frontier town called Dirt – a fitting moniker, as the town’s water supply has almost run out. A reckless performance during a tense showdown in the local saloon convinces the disenchanted townsfolk to appoint the heroic (or so they think) lizard as their sheriff, and when the last few drops of water locked away inside the bank disappear, Rango finds himself responding with vigour to his new role of leader, protector and saviour. At least, he tries pretty damn hard to.
Humorous angle aside, if the plot sounds familiar at all, it’s because Rango is a gleeful pastiche of a genre that just refuses to die. It unashamedly pays homage to many of the classics, most notably the Sergio Leone Dollars trilogy and its memorable musical themes, which put both star Clint Eastwood and composer Ennio Morricone on the map. The archetypal mysterious stranger coming to the rescue of a town in peril, battling lawlessness and greed while also managing to catch the eye of a distressed but plucky maiden – you know how it goes. But Rango piles on the references to other movies like Tarantino on a bender, extending the tribute to many great films of other genres which are actually Westerns in a different guise, from Star Wars to Chinatown.
There is a solid story to back up the feast of film references, and while it’s committed to a tried-and-true formula and is a bit long, it maintains a fast pace, and there are enough twists and twisted humour to keep you absorbed. As you might expect, a lot of the parodies and jokes will fly over the heads of children, but they’ll respond to the “fish out of water” premise – a staple of the young filmgoer’s diet. At the same time, I wouldn’t call it a kid’s film. The humour is very dry and at times quite dark, while some of the imagery is sinister and intense. And Rango is significantly different from other animated films in that, while the characters are all identifiable animals, most of them are clearly not designed to look cute. They are as dirty and disease-ridden as their antecedents in the spaghetti Western. Hats off to the filmmakers for keeping their attention on the movie and not the merchandise.
It all makes you wonder what kind of audience they’re aiming at. Rango is the offspring of, among others, George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic visual effects company and Nickelodeon Movies, but I’m guessing Johnny Depp will be its major drawcard. The film boasts a handful of seasoned and crusty veterans playing off each other, none of whom I’ll give away here because it’s always fun trying to figure them out before the final credits give you all the answers. There is also a brief appearance by a surprise guest star – at least, it looks and sounds like the guy. In hindsight, director Gore Verbinski – a filmmaker who can churn out noisy, gargantuan Hollywood adventures like the Pirates of the Caribbean series as well as a small, stinging comedy like The Weather Man – was a good choice, as Rango is as gloriously cinematic as it is witty and ironic. And it will change the way you think about roadkill.