Rango can best be described as a loving animated spoof-cum-ode to classic Spaghetti Westerns, most notably those directed by the iconic Sergio Leone. And the influences run deeper than that – while director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3) clearly channelled Leone, composer Hans Zimmer was obviously influenced by Ennio Morricone, and the film also parodies aspects of the 1966 western Django. And if that isn’t enough pedigree for a mainstream animated movie, the voice cast includes the likes of Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Timothy Olyphant and Ray Winstone, not to mention Rango is the animated feature debut of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). For those unfamiliar with ILM, they are one of the top-tier pioneers of cinematic special effects, so it’s hardly surprising that Rango is the best-looking animated movie to date. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that John Logan’s script is hit-and-miss.
After accidentally falling off the back of a car, a cloistered chameleon (Depp) is abandoned in the vast, scorching expanses of the Mojave Desert armed with nothing but a passion for acting. His dramatic chops soon prove useful, however, when he stumbles upon the drought-stricken town of Dirt and manages to convince the town’s denizens (an array of desert creatures, ranging from toads to rodents of all shapes and sizes) that he’s in fact a dangerous gunslinger named Rango. Through a series of standoffs in which Rango accidentally comes out on top, the desperate townsfolk see the wily lizard as their saviour, and he’s tasked with the role of sheriff as they battle a water shortage problem. During this, a romantic interest for Rango emerges in the form of desert iguana Beans (Fisher), and secrets are gradually revealed involving the shady dealings of the town’s corrupt mayor (Beatty).
As evidenced in at least the first Pirates of the Caribbean production, Verbinski is a terrific action director. Consequently, Rango comes alive during the breathtaking action beats, including a delightful set-piece involving giant bats that hilariously parodies the Flight of the Valkyries aerial assault from Apocalypse Now. Rango may be ILM’s first animated feature, but the George Lucas-founded studio have nailed it right out of the gate – their decades of special effects experience have translated to a succulent visual feast guaranteed to impress even the most curmudgeonly of movie-goers. Each frame bursts with immense artistry and vitality, easily topping motion-capture movies like A Christmas Carol and The Polar Express in terms of both realistic movement and detail. The character designs impress too, as the lizards and rodents actually look somewhat cute and cuddly. Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2010’s True Grit) was even hired as a visual consultant, and his cinematographic instincts clearly benefitted the movie to a tremendous extent, resulting in sweeping shots of desert vistas and dynamic photography during the action sequences.
But Rango is a strangely mixed bag. While it looks gorgeous, it suffers from poor pacing, which is likely a direct cause of Verbinski’s inexperience with animation. The story (reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown) is very thin and familiar, and there was no reason to pad it out to an unreasonable 110-minute runtime. The pictures invigorates from time to time, but the dialogue is frequently flat and the movie often feels as if it’s on autopilot. A film like this should be infused with high energy levels to keep the pace brisk, but Rango unfortunately meanders. Most problematic is when the titular character is taken seriously and pathos emerges in an attempt to introduce themes and messages. Ultimately, though, such material feels forced and unearned in what should be a fluffy, easygoing comedy. It also doesn’t help that the overzealous quirkiness of the material grows old quickly.
On a more positive note, the voice cast is pitch-perfect from top to bottom. Leading the pack is the always-reliable Johnny Depp, who essentially married his Captain Jack Sparrow and Hunter S. Thompson personas to create the endearing titular chameleon. While it’s disappointing to see Depp starring in more safe, high-profile studio releases than daring indie pictures, you can never accuse Depp of delivering a lazy performance; he is 100% dedicated to every role he undertakes, and Rango is no exception. Another standout is Ned Beatty as the mayor of Dirt; his performance gives a credible, sinister edge to the morally dubious role. Bill Nighy pops up momentarily as well, and his menacing vocal performance as Rattlesnake Jake sounds very similar to his work as Davey Jones in the first two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. Timothy Olyphant also appears briefly to voice what is essentially Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name character. Astonishingly, Olyphant sounds somewhat like a young Eastwood. Isla Fisher and Abigail Breslin are in the cast too, and both of them are strong in their respective female roles. Various other names also loaned their talents to the movie, and suffice it to say all of them are solid.
For the most part, children are likely to be delighted by Rango. When it doesn’t plod, there’s enough visual artistry to keep them enthralled, and there are a number of fun set-pieces as well. But it’s merely good instead of great – it was clearly meant to be a comedy, but laughs are too occasional and the pacing is too uneven.