Director Gore Verbinski himself has admitted that Rango was meant only as a “small” break from the widely-successful Pirates of the Caribbean series. To his surprise, however, animated filmmaking was not the piece of cake that he had expected and his short detour into the Mojave Desert was scaled into a more serious production. Fortunately, this added effort is seen within moments, making his latest, a cut-above the rest: Its beautiful anesthetics and crisp storytelling serving as proof that even non-Pixar animations can be successful.
It starts by introducing a nameless pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) that occupies his time by acting out routines with the bare torso of a discarded doll, a plastic wind-up fish, and a dead cockroach. Things change drastically when the color changing lizard is accidentally abandoned on a bustling highway that sits in the middle of two long stretches of desert. Here he meets Roadkill (Alfred Molina), a rather peculiar nine-banded armadillo who preaches about “the Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant),” a mysterious being thought to provide salvation for the wasteland’s inhabitants, and of Dirt, a small, out-of-place town that seems to be stuck in the Old West.
Besides being populated by characters usually found in classic oaters, the confused reptile learns that Dirt is also in a dire state — water has become an increasingly scarce resource. It is here that he slaps on the alias Rango, a caricature of Western legends, and claims he has killed seven crooks with a single bullet and drinks poison for breakfast to add a kick in his step. By this tall tale and having already slain the community’s resident hawk/terror (by pure luck), he gains the trust of the townsfolk, and becomes the sheriff. With his newfound power, he sends himself and a couple of trustworthy companions on a mission to save the town from revolt and dehydration, while at the same time trying to piece together a sense of purpose.
With such heavy subtext and adult themes, Rango differs from the majority of kiddie-fare in that it isn’t afraid to tackle darker tones and risqué imagery. This intensifies in the film’s third act — Rango’s bright-red Hawaiian shirt being replaced with a crimson skyline, and the almost childlike innocence of the town being contrasted by the likes of Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), whose venomous personality is only overshadowed by the heat that he’s packing: a slightly-polished machine gun attached to his tail.
However, the film does suffer from the occasional dry spell, with moments that are lukewarm in comparison to others, and relationships that seem unneeded. One example is Rango’s love-interest, Beans (Isla Fisher), a local desert iguana and ranch owner who finds the chameleon wandering in the desert before reluctantly taking him in. Although she’s a perplexing character and Fisher does an excellent job in the voice department, screenwriter John Logan neglects to expand on what could have intriguing.
Actually, all the voice talents play a major role in the film’s charm and success. They’re incredibly well-rounded, and brilliant, although Depp’s contribution is the most noteworthy. As Rango, he exhibits a self-doubt that can be heard in his voice, which is further reinforced by the character’s mannerisms: Clumsy and a tad undecided. But that slowly changes and hearing triumph overcome fear in the actor’s speech is satisfying.
And with references to pivotal scenes in Apocalypse Now, a few pokes at the art direction in Star Wars, and several odes to A Fistful of Dollars, Rango is meant to appeal to a diverse demographic: From film aficionados, who will enjoy spotting homages to beloved cinema; the mainstream audience, who will appreciate its mature humor; and to the older kids, who will find Rango’s journey not only tense but also entertaining.