You have to know that any animated film that makes a visual reference in it’s first ten minutes to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and the film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is going to be shooting for something completely different and unexpected by most audiences.
Thankfully, the trippy and highly entertaining film, “Rango” achieves that unique freshness with surprising effectiveness for a film that definitely has it’s sights on taking big risks apart from the norm for this genre. This is an animated film that not only blends groundbreaking animation techniques with the gritty storytelling of an old western saga; but also, it’s a fascinating mix of bizarre looking talking desert creatures and witty dialogue that is a marvelous treat for old films buffs with it’s many cinematic references.
Pirates of the Carribean director, Gore Verbinski takes a break from sailing the seven seas and this time around, and transforms his Jack Sparrow star, Johnny Depp into a quirky pet chameleon stuck in the dry and desolate world of the American desert.
Depp plays Lars, a domesticated homebound lizard with a vivid imagination ( and a Hawaiian shirt ) who literally finds himself playing the proverbial fish out of water… or in this case, a chameleon out of his terrarium, after an accident tosses him out the family car on a road trip.
Lars suddenly finds himself in the middle of an unbearably hot, bleak and desolate wilderness without a clue about what to do or where to go. Soon, with the help of a wise old armadillo ( Alfred Molina ) who somehow survives having been squashed and abandoned as road kill, Lars crosses the desert to land himself in a dreary, dilapidated western town, quite accurately named “Dirt”.
Upon arrival, Lars soon realizes he’s got to fit in and prove himself to the suspicious and quirky townsfolk. He quickly adopts the name Rango, and pompously regales the denizens of Dirt with imaginative, but untrue, tales of bravado and adventure that eventually ends up convincing the townsfolk that he’s the amphibious savior to their many troubles.
Among those troubles, a marauding and voraciously hungry hawk; but more significantly, a devastating drought that threatens the very lives of everyone in the town. Soon, Rango finds himself as the new sheriff who’s eventually going to be at odds with the town’s conniving Mayor, a crusty, wheel-chair bound tortoise ( Ned Beatty ) who’s role in the drought conjures up images of the classic film, Chinatown.
Adding some romantic tension to this richly textured and clever film, is a spunky, independent brown female lizard named Beans ( Isla Fisher ) who’s southern-textured twang seems to be channeling Holly Hunter from the film, Raising Arizona. Beans also has a unsettling tendency to freeze up into a coma-like trance at the most unexpected moments. Apparently, some lizards of her ilk are prone to do that as a defensive mechanism.
Beans and Rango start off at odds with each other, while the water crisis gets worse for everyone in the town… but soon, the two end up becoming allies and more.
Complicating matters even further, the ruthless mayor is using the drought as part of a master plan to buy up all of the town’s surrounding land at, pardon the pun, a “dirt-cheap” price. Aiding the mayor is a villainous henchman, a giant Rattlesnake Jake ( Bill Nighy ) who has a gatling gun on his tail instead of a rattle and a deadly disposition and temper that’s rather surprising to see in a PG rated film.
In fact, while Rango’s marketing presents it as a rollicking and entertaining film for the family with it’s PG rating; the film is far from typical family fare. Some of the creatures actually die in this film and some parts are genuinely malevolent. Though, that very aspect is what makes this film so entertaining for everyone else above the age of 15 or so.
There’s little in Rango that smaller kids will completely enjoy or even relate to, apart from the striking visuals and odd looking creatures. This is a funny and sophisticated animated film that tailors itself as a dusty and faithful homage to the best of Sergio Leone’s violent and brooding spaghetti westerns, including a marvelous appearance by a mystical character called “The Spirit of the West” who seems to be, unmistakably, “The Man With No Name” ( brilliantly voiced by Timothy Olyphant )
Screenwriter John Logan has concocted a story that full of rich, quirky dialogue and situations that allows Depp to truly be in his most creative element. Depp’s voice and delivery is tailor made for this bizarro animated character who’s in a situation over his head.
Also, the unique process that director Verbinski utilizes in this film flies in the face of typical animation fare.
Verbinski had the actors work together on a prop-filled and partially dressed stage to voice and act out their scenes while HD cameras captured their bodily moves and expressions for the animators to work their magic. Indeed, the animators were from George Lucas’ renowned special effects house, Industrial Light and Magic who, with Rango, have created their first ever feature length animated film.
The result of their sophomore animated feature film is a visual masterpiece. Taking nothing away from the high sheen gloss and polish of the best of Pixar or Dreamworks’ animation, ILM has created a marvelous landscape that is meticulous in it’s attention to the tiniest details. Light, shadow, color and rich textures have never seemed so realistic on the screen while utilizing the most unrealistic, yet imaginative, of creatures to populate it’s cast.
The creatures all bear a resemblance to animals we all know, but in “Rango”, they have a odd uniqueness that also makes them seem a bit other-worldly. From the family of seemingly water-stealing, inbred rodents led by their paternal leader, Balthazar ( Harry Dean Stanton ) to Priscilla, an odd little mouse in child’s clothing with biting one-liners ( Abigail Breslin ), these are creatures you’d be hard-pressed to imagine being popular toys for the kids comes Christmas time.
The film also enjoys infusing the story with liberal touches of Latino flavor… from the casting of Alfred Molina as the wise sage that guides Rango on his mission of self-discovery to the wonderfully hilarious Mexican mariachi band of guitar playing owls that serve as the film’s musical storytelling guides from start to final scene.
Finally, one of the truly wonderful delights about Rango is it’s gleeful embrace of peppering the film with obvious and also very subtle classic movie references that will be a film buff’s delight to discover with each passing scene. From the aforementioned presence of Sergio Leone’s gritty style of westerns that made Clint Eastwood a star… to a saloon encounter that evokes an Old West take-off on the Cantina scene from Star Wars, “Rango” is a film lover’s delight.
Adults will appreciate this film far more than the younger tykes will and kudos to the filmmakers for being brave enough to not make easy, money-making compromises in their story… while also, thankfully excluding the now wearisome inclusion of 3D.
However, Verbinski, Depp and the newly-unleashed animation magicians at ILM have created a film that will have adults adoring this film as a clever, superbly constructed, and often action-packed modern animation classic for the sophisticated geeky kid in all of us.
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