Rango Review: West Is Best

RANGO (PG): On General Release From Friday 4th March

Gore Verbinksi, best known for the Pirates of the Caribbean series, takes his first step into the weird and wonderful world of animation and he’s taking them with the very weird and the exceedingly wild Johnny Depp. They come together once again to bring life to Rango, an animated Western for kids which for some bizarre reason is also a drama about one chameleon’s (Depp) identity crisis. These two elements don’t always sit comfortably together but it’s definitely an interesting experiment.

The film opens with Rango performing a monologue in which he reveals that he’s struggling with feeling lost and alone in what appears to be a dreamlike desert where his only friends are a wind-up fish toy and a headless Barbie. In reality, he’s a pet chameleon travelling in the back of a car which, thanks to a pesky armadillo, is thrown from the car and left to his own devices. This is one of the best openings to a film I’ve ever seen, almost on par with Toy Story 3 and that’s going some. The sun hits Rango’s terrarium as it flies through the air like a light at the end of the tunnel signals freedom, sweet and terrible freedom.

He wanders through the desert, evading hungry birds and heat exhaustion until he comes across a prim and proper lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher). Lamenting the mysterious lack of water in her Old West town of Dirt, she decides to bring Rango along who quickly realises that he finally has the chance to be somebody. Ironically, blending in doesn’t come easy to this chameleon and he stands out in the town like, well, a bright green chameleon and so he decides to embellish certain facts about his life, starting with the fact that he’s a talented gunslinger. After making a few outlandish claims to the locals and impressing them in the saloon with some dumb luck, he’s named as the new Sheriff.

The mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty) now relies on Rango to save the town from a permanent drought by solving the mystery of the dwindling water supply. Taking a posse of locals with him, Rango sets out on a wild adventure to finally become the brave Sheriff he’s pretending to be.

The film pays tribute to a wide variety of film (Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and Man With No Name) without being as referential as a Shrek movie. These moments are more amusing than they are distracting and give the film a postmodern edge that blends neatly with the charm of the Old West. Despite some high points, the story is the films weakest link. For example, around the 1 hr 20min mark, Rango wanders back into the desert having been exposed as a fraud to his friends and love interest, Beans. He has an existential crisis and comes across the barely mentioned and not at all important Spirit of the West – a thinly veiled impression of Clint Eastwood. Though it’s somewhat amusing for adults to see a CGI Clint dispensing advice to Rango, it’s utterly unnecessary and drags out what should have been a more focused story for kids.

Moving from the Con column to the Pro, Depp does some of his best work here and showcases comedic timing we had only glimpsed at before, creating a classic Western character with contemporary eccentricities. Bill Nighy adds real flavour as deranged gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake while Ray Winstone is completely miscast as cockney lizard Bad Bill – this casting makes absolutely no sense.

The real crowning glory however, has to be the superb animation. The colours and shading are very sophisticated and the textures and elements are perfect, provided by Industrial Light and Magic with their first animation. We don’t often see this quality outside of Pixar movies and I don’t think it’d be going too far to say that Rango will give them a run for their money at next year’s Oscars. Yes, it’s uneven but there’s still a lot to like about Rango and at its best, it’s quirky and entertaining, at worst, it’s predictable and a too long. I can live with that.

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