With his first animated feature, Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski shows ambitions considerably beyond producing the usual standard of most children's fare. To put it plainly, Rango is one weird movie.
Among other things, it features a mariachi band of owls, functioning like a Greek chorus, that tells us we are about to hear the story of the life and death of Rango. The titular character is a blue-skinned, bug-eyed chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) who we first meet while he's in his terrarium, acting out mini-dramas with his plastic fish, a mannequin torso and fake palm tree.
A few minutes later, a bump in the road sends him flying from his perch in the back of a car, and his unseen owners drive on, leaving him lying in a pile of broken glass on a Mojave Desert highway. After that, the late Hunter S. Thompson (who Depp played in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) makes a cameo. Next, as Rango has a conversation with a dying armadillo (a truck tire has nearly severed his mid-section), audiences may begin to wonder who slipped a peyote button into their soft drinks.
Gradually, Rango becomes slightly more conventional, a quest tale in the Finding Nemo line. Soon Rango meets a female lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher) who has an inconvenient habit of freezing at peculiar times ("It's a defence mechanism"). He also meets a girl rat (Abigail Breslin), who promises he'll soon die. Through a series of accidents and some ill-advised boasting, Rango finds himself the sheriff of a dried-up town called Dirt, whose population consists of various rodents and reptiles.
As it turns out, the Fear and Loathing reference was just an appetizer. Rango is stuffed with allusions to other films. These aren't Shrek-like pop-culture references, but more Verbinski's homage to other filmmakers, which gives Rango an eccentric personal quality. The plot echoes Bob Hope's The Paleface and its remake with Don Knotts, The Shakiest Gun in the West, about a fast-talking coward becoming, in a case of mistaken identity, a western hero.
Otherwise, it's chock full of vintage movie references: The town's mayor is an old tortoise (Ned Beatty) who controls the water supply, and it doesn't take more than a moment to recognize his impersonation of John Huston playing Noah Cross in Chinatown. There's an action sequence, perhaps 10 minutes long and overly busy, which involves Rango and a posse chasing down a gang of moles. In rapid succession, it makes reference to the Ride of the Valkyries sequence from Apocalypse Now, 2001: A Space Odyssey and various John Ford films set in Monument Valley.
It even echoes True Grit, a movie still in the theatres. True Grit's cinematographer, Roger Deakins, was a visual consultant to Rango, helping to create the anamorphic western landscapes which seem to mix Frederic Remington with Salvador Dali.
The same sophistication extends to the screenplay by John Logan. The dialogue, including Rango's stream-of-consciousness rambling, goes by quickly, but with an unexpected life-likeness. Rather than working in recording studios, the actors performed on stages with partial sets and props, captured on video as references for the animators.
What will all this mean to children? Undoubtedly no more than that this is a story about a homely-but-cute young hero who must defeat an old tortoise for control of the water supply so the little animals don't die. But don't look for the big heart-tugging moments of Up or Toy Story 3. Though its level of execution is consistently high, Rango is a non-pandering comedy that takes its message of western individualism seriously: It's here for you and your children to enjoy - or not - as you please.
- Directed by Gore Verbinski
- Written by John Logan, Gore Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit
- Starring Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher and Abigail Breslin
- Classification: PG