Running time: 85 min. Rating: PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking. Director: Gore Verbinski Writers:John Logan (screenplay), John Logan (story) Starring: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Timothy Olyphant, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Harry Dean Stanton, Stephen Root, Bill Nighy
Gore Verbinski seems well-suited to the world of animation. Based solely upon his newest (and best) film, Rango, I’d say he’s found his niche; telling action-packed and adventurous stories with the freedom and energy inherent in the medium. Here is a satirical family film based off classic Westerns that has the nerve and conviction to play serious, as if it were the real thing. When a PG ‘kid’s’ film opens with the cloistered protagonist asking existentially, Who am I?, you know it won’t quite be business as usual.
That protagonist is Rango (Johnny Depp), a garden-variety chameleon with aspirations of a thespian, staging impromptu productions of Shakespeare with the inanimate props in his terrarium. That’s strange going for the start of the film, which diverts wildly from Pixar’s wholesomeness by showing us Depp’s manic lizard haphazardly copping a feel on a scantily-clad, headless Barbie doll torso whose voice he supplies via cracked ventriloquism. It only gets stranger as Rango’s world is literally shattered when his tank slides off a car and into the desert road. There he meets a trio of annoyingly fatalistic mariachi owls and a sage but obtuse armadillo (Alfred Molina), who initially looks like one more case of tragic road kill.
Following the armadillo’s advice, which exists somewhere between the musings of the Dude and Jim Morrison lyrics, Rango picks his way through the burning sand to find the town of Dirt and its parched and diminished citizens. From here on out, the plot behaves as if this were a mash-up between Sergio Leone and John Ford, with a healthy but puzzling dose of Polanski’s Chinatown. The fast-talking, outsized personality of the chameleon—latching on intuitively to whatever archetypes are left lying in the crabgrass—immediately smashes into the more pragmatic and world-weary denizens of this water-poor town. They need salvation from bandits and dehydration, and Rango, well, he needs a reason to be and matter.
Once he strides in and gets himself noticed for dispatching the local ruffians and a fearsome hawk, Rango gets promoted to sheriff by the crippled yet stoic Mayor, an ancient and grizzled tortoise whose voice creaks out in the grand tones of Ned Beatty. Rango thinks he can pantomime his way through the ordeal but once he befriends the town folk, including the fetching and sassy Bean (a female lizard trying to tend to her daddy’s dying farm), he finds more personal reasons to succeed. The problem comes down to the water. It was here once, now it’s gone, and in the desert how in the world do you find more of it?
You could write out your predictions about where this story will go on a napkin, and if you have seen more than one western, you will likely be right. Verbinksi makes that plot matter because of the world he creates around it and the characters who populate it. In addition to Rango, Bean and the mayor, there’s also a wonderfully expressive and crusty town posse, a backwater clan of in-bred moles and the legendary and deadly gunslinger, Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy growling out greatness). The fact that all of these characters are animals, enacting well-worn action tropes surrounding a nearly empty water-cooler doesn’t really hinder the adventure because Rango has the convictions of its premise.It’s the Dali-inspired fever dream of westerns, chugging along with a dazzling intensity and warmth.
Consider for a moment the visual imagination on display in the film. There isn’t another animated movie out there that looks exactly like this one. Instead of going for stylized cartoon representations—the way a Disney or Pixar film might—Rango’s designers go to lengths to make these characters take on a tactile reality. Rango’s lumpy, pop-eyed head has tiny granular marks you can see if you strain your eyes, and when the sun beats down on him, that skin dries and curls into husky gray whisps that crack and fall to the earth.
When Rango enters the saloon, it is like a stirring repeat of the famous Mos Eisely cantina scene in Star Wars: A New Hope. All manner of desert creatures sit in the dusky mid-day shadows, sipping away at acrid pints of cactus juice and staring fearsomely out at the newcomer. Matted tufts of fur, broken ears, battered eyes, horns, tails and claws all peeking out from under gunslinger costuming built from cast-off human trash modified for a miniature world. These aren’t cozy happy-meal visages, but hardened brutes who have adapted to the uncompromising hostility of the desert.
The dusty streets of Dirt are treated with a similarly obsessive attention to detail. Forget Tombstone, this place looks like Auntie Entity’s Bartertown. Out in the wasteland, creeping cacti wander in lonely herds amidst a mirage that is awe inspiring in its dreamlike absurdity and Rango’s posse ride roadrunners into the sun as if they were ronin striding to Kingdom Come. The mole homestead, nestled in a deep valley, evokes a horror movie but remains on this side of creepy by making the criminal enclave clueless but genial rapscallions. That there are millions of them, climbing up out of the crumbling ground, is almost as threatening as their airborne army, picking banjos and seated on dive-bombing bats.
The moles, those bats and a covered caravan hiding the stolen water figure into a hair-raising action scene that re-imagines the quintessential Indian raid on a stagecoach as an exhilarating, visually disorienting chase worthy of Spielberg. Set to Ride of the Valkyries, this sequence demonstrates the visceral excitement of kinetic, racing motion in a way that reminds and then decimates Lucas’ pod race from The Phantom Menace. The bats are pouring down from the air, the moles are giving chase on the ground, and Rango and company are bouncing off the top of the caravan trying to keep it from careening into the chasms below. This is thrilling stuff, by even live-action standards. That the scene is preceded by a delirious and madcap showdown with the hawk earlier and then later by the surprisingly involving big gunfight, speaks to the generosity of the filmmakers. They give us our money’s worth and then some.
The voicecast, which includes the eclectic likes of Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Stephen Root, Ray Winstone, and Harry Dean Stanton perform their parts as if they were really acting and yet many of their identities are obscure to us because the animators do such a fine job matching their work with creatures who seem really there and not like ciphers.
Depp is in good form here, and I’m starting to think that his work with Gore Verbinski is comparable to his early days with Burton. I was impressed by the way he makes Rango’s chameleon traits matter without visually tipping the hat. This character is a curious blank slate, whose adaptability comes from the putting on and off of traits and expectations, not a physical outward blending. Depp makes him a blithering, saucy loudmouth but hard-codes into his DNA a yearning, a curiosity and a nobility that works even when his schtick runs on too long.
Dreamworks has been building an interesting stable of films recently and I appreciate that they aren’t going the tired route of trying to mimic the lightning in a bottle of Pixar. That studio takes stories and makes them in their image, warm-hearted family films with a distinctive mark. Dreamworks has been playing it more loosely, choosing genre fare—fantasy with Dragon, superheroes with Megamind, martial-arts with Kung-Fu Panda—and then making films that stand on their own, animated or not. In Verbinski they may have struck a gold mine. This guy would make one heck of an animated Star Wars movie.