Johnny Depp stars as the eponymous almost-hero in Gore Verbinski's excellent Rango (2011)
Imagine if Alejandro Jodorowsky made a kid's animation about a cowardly lizard, and you're halfway toward imagining Rango, the new psychedelic Western from director Gore Verbinski. I'd previously thought of Verbinski as a hack, and the Pirates trilogy (2003, 2006, 2007) - insipid money-spinners - did very little to negate that idea, especially the third installment, which was bloated to the point of distress; indeed, every soft drink should have come with a healthy dose of methadone to ease the viewing experience. But to my relief Rango is actually a great little movie - it has humour, heart and three-dimensional characters I care about. In fact, it could well be the best animation of the year...
To those unacquainted, here's the plot: Rango (Johnny Depp) is a lonely household lizard resigned to a glass cage, and he dreams of becoming the hero of his own story - as it is, he just acts out self-written tragedies with the inanimate objects (a tree, a wind-up fish, a dead bug) that also inhabit his cage. One day, while being transported to a new home, Rango's rectangular residence slides off the back of his owners car and crashes in the middle of the desert. He soon finds his way to the simple town of Dirt, which is undergoing a water crisis - namely, they haven't got any. Rango realizes that nobody here knows who he is, so he can build an identity from scratch. After accidentally defeating a troublesome hawk the townsfolk declare him a hero, and he becomes Sheriff. From there a quest to find water begins, and Rango comes into a league of its own.
There are so many things to praise about the film, but I'll start with the screenplay. It's an absolute belter, and best of all is the fact that it plays to all audiences. There's plenty of slapstick for the kids - which relies more on individual character quirks than broad innuendo - yet there's also some really funny dialogue for the adults. A solid example would be this exchange between Rango and Beans (Isla Fisher), whom he meets out in the desert:
Rango: So, what's your name?
Rango: That's a funny kind of name.
Beans: What can I say? My Daddy plumb loved baked beans.
Rango: Well, you're lucky he didn't plumb love asparagus.
Beans: Wh.. what are you saying?
Rango: I mean, I enjoy a hearty puttanesca myself, but I'm not
sure that a child would appreciate the moniker.
It's not exactly Mamet, I grant you, but it's certainly working on a higher level than your average family flick, and the actors clearly relish the opportunity for some worldplay; Rango's opening monologue about characterization is also a brave note to start on, as it risks alienating the youngest members of the audience. That said, it also features some wonderful sight gags, especially when the goofy reptile imagines himself in various starring roles, including a rogue anthropologist and "the greatest lover the world has ever known." It's perfectly balanced, and Depp's dextrous vocal performance ensures that the kids will be entirely engaged.
But really, all of the vocal performances bear mentioning. Fisher is utterly charming as Beans, who's a bit eccentric and shy, but also smart and strong; she's a layered and likable heroine, and doesn't simply serve as a romantic interest, although her emerging relationship with Rango is quite sweet. Bill Nighy also turns in an excellent performance here as the terrifying Rattlesnake Jake, who's a genuinely great villain. He chomps and snarls his way through the dialogue, working up a deathly fuss in a way only the great British thesp can. The character is an imposing presence, and Nighy's vocal work fits perfectly.
It's a beautifully shot film (the opening crash is a work of art, as is the Spirit Of The West sequence), but the final thing I want to mention is a connection I drew in my original review, with the videogame Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath (2005). The stories share a similar vein of critter-based kook, and the feeling that danger may lie around every corner. To quote that review, "One gets the feeling that if Rango had walked twenty miles in the opposite direction he'd have bumped into Stranger and his deadly crossbow." I think it's that unpredictability that gives Rango its heart and true sense of adventure. It's likely going to become a cult film, and I hope that's the case. It's unusually good.
Perfect picture quality, and 10 deleted scenes make up the extras. Not the package I was hoping for, but still, it's worth picking up the film brand new.