We first meet the scrawny chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp as he waxes philosophical on drama from the isolation of his terrarium. The lizard with no name fancies himself a thespian, and he comes across as a slightly more self-aware, far less self-assured version of Pee-wee Herman. In no time at all, he’s stranded in the middle of the desert, far from the comfort provided by his human owners.
Striking out an identity quest, the chameleon ends up in a dusty, drought-ravaged western town called Dirt. There he invents the persona of Rango, an unparalleled gunslinger and all-around roughneck in whom the townspeople invest their hope, making him sheriff.
Verbinski, who is most well known for the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, has an eclectic resume, including The Ring, Mouse Hunt, and The Weather Man. With Rango, he and venerable visual effects establishment Industrial Light & Magic – fellow first timers at feature animation – have created a visual marvel that actually manages to stand apart from any other animated film in recent memory.
Much has been made of Verbinski’s actor-friendly technique catchily referred to as ‘emotion capture’. Dismissing motion capture as too rigid for the stylized inhabitants of Dirt, the director instead conducted a roughly twenty-day video shoot and audio record with his cast in limited costumes and practically non-existent sets. Using that footage as a resource, the animators have brought off-kilter life to the wonderful characters designed by Mark “Crash” McCreery. As a result of the group recordings, the ensemble feels lively, as if these characters are actually reacting to one another.
The two primary female critters, Beans and Priscilla, voiced by Isla Fisher and Abigail Breslin, eschew traditional cuteness, yet are no less likable for it. Fisher, in particular, gives Beans a bold, unconventional presence. Character actors like Stephen Root, Alfred Molina and Ray Winstone all make impressions, no matter how briefly their animal dopplegangers appear. Ned Beatty provides his second villainous vocal performance in a year, following up Toy Story 3’s Lotso Huggin Bear with a scheming, wheelchair-bound tortoise. Bill Nighy will scare children senseless as Rattlesnake Jake, a venom-spewing serpent with a Gatling gun where his rattle ought to be. Jake’s a fearsome presence, causing both kids and adults in the theater to recoil with enthusiastic revulsion.
Special mention should be paid to Rango himself, though. The lizard defies the conventional wisdom that an affecting digital character needs giant, empathy inspiring eyes, like those of the Na’vi in Avatar. This lizard peers out from tiny pinholes in the middle of asymmetrical orbs that dart about inhumanly, yet our connection to him suffers not a bit. The sharp-limbed Rango slinks, struts, and gives a physical performance that progresses through cycles of spineless cowardice, Looney Tunes outrageousness, and finally, full on gunslinging heroism.
This is an ostentatious debut for ILM, and we'll be every shade of lucky if they stay in the feature animation game. After serving the same function on Wall-e for Pixar and How to Train Your Dragon for DreamWorks, 11-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins acted as a ‘visual consultant’ to the animators at ILM. The result is an unqualified success. The world is remarkably detailed, with light and atmospheric effects that are more immersive than anything you’ll find in the average 3D release. The sun-drenched exteriors are faultless, down to tiny grains of sand and irregularities in woodwork. Dim, smoke-filled interiors feel oppressively dirty and dank, like Sergio Leone’s most dirtball saloons. Some psychedelic interludes are wholly unique, mingling that heightened detail with unfiltered whimsy.
Like all great animation, there’s an unbridled joy in the portrayal of motion, from the zooming of massive cars on the impassable highway to the wild gesticulations of Rango, and the fearsome slithering of Rattlesnake Jake. Water has a central role; all different quantities and velocities of H2O are rendered well enough that you’ll find yourself feeling parched. There are a number of inventive action beats, but when the scope suddenly expands for a huge chase sequence near the film’s middle, the sheer amount of motion crammed into the frame is almost too much for the snappily paced action.
The actual plotting of Rango, from a script by John Logan from a story by Verbinski, Logan, and James Ward Byrkit, can be a bit dodgy. The film’s second act is a little aimless, with a lack of overarching motivation. The characters have a definite short-term goal, but until the true nature of the film’s threat comes into focus, it lacks forward momentum. That said, the dialogue frequently sings in a way that non-Pixar animated films rarely manage
The mechanics of the plot don’t always click together with precision, but I’m not talking about a frequent complaint so far, that the plot borrows too liberally from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Rango acknowledges its debt, and the Chinatown elements serve a thematic purpose no different from the encroaching railroad in Leone’s Once Upon A Time in The West.
And that’s where we get to the thematic meat of Rango, a film that begins absurd, frequently dips into slapstick, yet ends up becoming a Western in the revisionist style of Peckinpah, Leone, or Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Shockingly, it has genuine contributions to the themes that define the genre. The chameleon with an identity crisis, his theatrical sheriff persona, and even Rattlesnake reflect both the glamorization of violence in the west, and the mythology of the gunslinger. The evil scheme threatening Dirt, as well, serves as a comment upon notions of civilization and progress.
By the film’s climax, our strange reptilian hero cuts a familiar silhouette no less stirring for its familiarity. So many modern animated films feel like they’re running through a checklist of kid friendly shenanigans, quasi-topical references for adults, and manipulative emotional beats. Verbinski and company, however, borrow a move from Pixar playbook, and give their protagonist a simple, stirring arc. All the animated innovation and oddity make the film unique, and in the end, they ably support the satisfaction that comes from watching Rango embrace the Spirit of the West.