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Non-Review Review: Rango

I quite enjoyed Gore Verbinski’s Rango, even though I was never quite sure what to make of it. While it isn’t quite as strong as the typical Pixar fare, the film compares rather well with some of Dreamworks’ better output over the last number of years.

A prickly customer...

Rango is the story of a Chameleon With No Name who – through chance and circumstance – finds himself wandering into a small, lawless desert town. It’s a small community which runs on a currency of water rather than gold (with water standing in for anything from fine brandy to wages to oil), a town where the last sheriff lasted Thursday through Saturday. It’s an old-school frontier town populated with all manner of lizards, their skin hardened and grayed by harsh exposure.

In this strange place, completely unknown, our anonymous hero is able to create a new identity for himself. Without a past, he’s able to invent an entirely new life as “Rango”, the tough-as-nails gunslinger who has managed impossible feats with his six-shooter and is brother to a rattle snake. Inevitably our city-slicking lizard discovers that life in the real world is somewhat tougher than he imagined, but he also discovers that he’s made of tougher stuff than even he expected – as he attempts to investigate the town’s water shortage.

I wouldn't rattle his cage...

One might be inclined to believe from the posters and trailers and publicity, and they’d be right to, that this is something of a Western populated with anthropomorphic animal archetypes. The faint trace of Ennio Morricone dances over the score, and there’s more than a hint of Sergio Leone’s world view creeping into the film. When Rango, in the film’s second half, confronts “the Spirit of the West”, he wears a poncho and drives a golf buggy loaded with Oscar-like awards. Even though he’s voiced by Timothy Olyphant, you know who he’s meant to be.

However, the film doesn’t confine itself to the classic Western, as much as it reveres the source material. There are underground adventures which seem to call to mind something from Raiders of the Lost Ark, a tough aerial battle which brings to mind Star Wars, a sinister plot to control a community through the water supply like Chinatown. There’s a community of inbred gophers which call to mind the hicks from Deliverance (one even getting the especially creepy line, “I like it when they run”). Rango, as voiced by Johnny Depp, even has a brief encounter with Raoul Duke, also voiced by Johnny Depp. The references come quick and fast, even in minor character dynamics.

Put on a happy face...

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my inner film geek loved the references. It’s cool to see a movie so breathlessly entertaining and self-aware. At one point, illustrating “the Spirit of the West”, eagle-eyed viewers will spot Rango drawing a TIE fighter. However, I do kinda wonder what the kids in the audience made of all these references going over their head. I can’t speak for them (and, in fairness, none seemed to act up during the screening), but I wonder if they did feel a little left out with all these obscure references being thrown around so casually.

However, while these little references are fun, there is an underlying sense that Rango itself is having difficulty with its identity, like the lead character. Is it a Western? Is it an adventure? Is it a neo-noir? Sure, it can be all three, but it jumps rapidly between them all over the first hour – to the point where it seems the film is having difficulty finding its own feet. It’s never quite boring, but one can sense a definite uneasiness in how it shifts so frequently between the genres it’s trying to homage or parody.

Canned good?

The film is strongest when it decides to move away from these more archetypal ideas and just indulge its own wacky nature. In particular, the first twenty minutes and then the last half hour are particularly strong, as the film engages in any number of wilfully bizarre and occasionally downright LSD-inspired adventures – including a philosophical roadkill armadillo played by Alfred Molina, a surreal dream of walking cacti and a strange conversation with a ghost carrying a metal detector. While these are each obviously anchored in examples of popular culture (especially that last one), there’s a sense that the movie is consciously doing its own thing – rather than trying to conform to the structure and plot elements of a typical Western or neo-noir film. It’s these moments at which the film seems almost aware of its existence as a cheeky little animated film, winking at the camera and occasionally playing with its audience. And we love it.

That said, it is consistently entertaining throughout, just stronger at the beginning and end. I think that the team behind the film deserve particular credit for the visual effects. Really, the film genuinely looks stunning. The screen is pretty much just shades of grey and brown (with Rango’s green serving as a contrast), but it does look magnificent. There are weaker moments (the rendering of the feathers on a bird of prey, for example), but – at its best – the film actually seems like a strange sort of stop-motion CGI hybrid, which works much better than it sounds. In particular, there’s a chase sequence in the middle of the film featuring lots of gophers and lots of bats which looks incredibly impressive, but there are also numerous other shots which I think will stay with me – the posse riding against a sunset, or a rattlesnake firing a gun randomly into a flock of bats. It’s great stuff.

Riding off against the sunset...

Also high quality is the cast. Johnny Depp really lets himself go as Rango, and it’s nice to hear the actor go “all out” without going to the pantomime of Jack Sparrow. While the rest of the cast is very strong, Bill Nighy deserves particular credit for playing Rattlesnake Jake, a character who (even with his little moustache) feels like he wandered out of a genuine old-school Western. I didn’t even know it was Nighy in the role until I checked the credits, but he just oozes such classic Western charisma that he manages to steal the show in the few scenes that he has.

Rango is a nice little film. It’s not perfect or superb or fantastic, but it’s entertaining. I reckon that film fans will probably get a lot more out of it than families going, but there’s enough charm there to keep the whole family watching. The movie does suffer a bit from a crisis of identity in the middle, as it tries to be too many things at once, but it’s great when it finds its own strange little foot to stand on. Worth your time if you’re looking for a classic Western with a difference.

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8 Responses

  1. It’s odd, I’ve always liked Depp’s voice work a lot more than his actual performances. He just seems sort of “free” when he’s lending his voice to a project like this or the Corpse Bride. Man, I love the Corpse Bride.

    • Hi Fred. I do have to admit that I love the Corpse Bride, but it’s still not a patch on The Nightmare Before Christmas. I think that (with the obvious exception of Jack Sparrow), as rule, Depp is a lot less restrained giving a vocal performance. I also think he just feels like he’s playing a more pantomime role, so he’s willing to swing for the fences a bit more. That said, Ed Wood is still my favourite Depp performance because, while it’s very showy, it’s also very human and very strong.

      Depp carries a lot of Rango. I think without him, the moview wouldn’t be half as entertaining.

  2. So do you think my kids will like it?

    • In fairness, the kids at the screening I attended were having a great time – so maybe my observations are misplaced. I do think, however, that the film will have a stronger following among film fans who will appreciate the references – but not to the point were it’s inaccessable to more casual movie-goers. It’s a good, entertaining little film.

  3. I adored Rango. I can see the flaws like you but the sheer entertainment value for me made it a five star experience.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I did really enjoy it. In fact, one weekend in and this is shaping up to be a great March for cinema. It’s still a hugely enjoyable little film (even my brother, who came along, thought it was great), even if I thought the segments where the movie was more comfortable in its own little wacky world (even while acknowledging its influences) were stronger than the clearer and more explicit references to Westerns and film noir.

      But still a wonderfully solid and entertaining animated feature.

  4. This is probably my new favorite non-Pixar CGI movie.

    Did Raoul Duke even talk? I think he grumbled a bit, but he wasn’t really onscreen long enough for any talking, if I remember correctly.

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