Scrub away all of your doubts about the ability of the omnipresent Johnny Depp (whose cinematic output has been — let’s face it — less than impressive lately) to carry a leading voice role without overpowering an entire film. Dismiss all preconceived notions about director Gore Verbinski’s first stab at an animated picture, for this final product is much smarter than any of that Pirates of the Caribbean garbage. Yet, at the same time, Rango is still as much of a rip-roaring ride as it effortlessly blends genres and their archetypes into an Old West setting. The story by Verbinski and his screenwriter, John Logan (The Aviator), initially covers some familiar ground by exploring the well-treaded “fish out of water” motif, but that’s the limit of any genericism. Here, Depp plays a lizard who dreams big and generally amuses himself by acting within his own plays and pauses only to reflect, “Our story needs an ironic, unexpected event that will propel our hero into conflict.” Well, that unexpected event quickly takes place, but the true irony here is that there’s precious little irony to be found within Rango.
Instead, this is both a character and plot-driven film that contains plenty of subtext yet still manages to avoid a heavy-handed approach. Even better, it’s quirky without being obnoxious. The story takes place in a West where there is no room for gunslingers or legends, only businessmen. Rango is like Chinatown with unmistakeable touches from Raising Arizona and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, drenched in surrealism and entrenched within a gritty, harsh desert setting. Fittingly, the movie is also a throwback to the glorious spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, and Rango contains a blissful absence of pop culture allusions other than what’s necessary for the story. It indulges in the rampant destruction of life and limb, throws in a few quick-flying sexual jokes, and features more than one character shouting “Go to hell!”
With that said, Rango is (barely) innocuous enough for families but probably most enjoyable for adult audiences.
Meanwhile, the substance of Rango is steadfastly matched by its wit and style. One of the more memorable characters unfurls himself as villainous Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), whose tail houses a rapid-fire gun instead of a rattle. Jake coils so effortlessly throughout the frame that he oozes into the audience. This attention to detail goes for the rest of the visuals, which are so stunning and and lifelike that they don’t need no stinkin’ 3D. The look of the entire film is majestic — from the soaring sunsets with light streaming through striated clouds to starry vistas and sand dunes under the full moon to a smoky, dusty saloon with creaky ceiling fans — and echoed through a painstakingly effective framing of shots. Consideration is also given to costuming detail and a Hans Zimmer score that is very deliberately infused with the sounds of Morricone but somehow seems fresh as it accompanies the wonderful lead character throughout his journey.
Let’s go back to that unexpected event. While on a road trip with his human owners, Depp’s nameless chameleon feels a few bumps in the road and soon lands on the side of the highway amongst the scattered remains of his terrarium. As a domesticated animal, he is unaccustomed to the unfriendly climate in which he finds himself, but he immediately meets a half-crushed armadillo (aptly named Roadkill and voiced by Alfred Molina), who points him in the direction of the nearest civilization. On the way, he meets a girl lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher), who takes him to a town called Dirt, where special events occur at high noon and which is populated by lizards, possums, rats, and birds — all of which are dressed in standard Old West regalia such as Sunday suits and sombreros — and where all of the towns citizens are suffering from one major predicament: a lack of water. Our chameleon immediately stumbles into the nearest saloon and conjures up a new Far West persona (borrowing his new name, Rango, from a bottle of cactus juice) as a killer who once took out seven men with just one bullet. Fortunately, Rango is an extremely resourceful lizard who manages to fake out the skeptics and is crowned Sheriff by the Mayor (Ned Beatty). At first, the new lawman is all duds and swagger, but the water issue cannot be ignored for long. All the while, Rango’s adventure is steadfastly narrated by four cute little mariachi owls, who impart such gems as “sinking into the guacamole of his own deception” and keep the story moving swiftly despite a 107 minute runtime.
As if the movie weren’t scoring enough points already, the voice work works far beyond the scope of most celebrity efforts. Fisher and Nighy are both excellent, and Depp proves himself to be a true chameleon, virtually unrecognizable as himself. A little bonus comes in the form of Timothy Olyphant, who voices the Spirit of the West character that seems a perfect parody of Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name.” I must admit that Olyphant does no heavy straining here and sounds, well, exactly like Olyphant, but it’s difficult to complain about such a trifle, particularly when his presence and voice easily conjures up images of Old West justice. Word on the street is that Verbinski took a rather unorthodox approach with his actors, going so far as to require them to perform their dialogue together in the same room (gasp!). As such, the cast truly works together in ensemble form and bounces off each other quite nicely. As for Rango himself, he eventually learns that “No man can walk out on his own story,” and he must live up to his adopted identity and carry though for the town of Dirt and his story’s audience. And he does just that. As such, Rango is more than worth your time and the most enjoyable animated pic to duel within multiplexes in quite some time.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.