A chameleon that can blend into any surrounding but cannot find out who he is or what his purporse is in life is ironic to say the least. But this is the question that Rango asks himself constantly as he does not know who he is or what his purpose is in life. Normally animated films like these has our protagonist go through a series of life changing events that eventually leads up to that climatic scene and ends with a mundane and tiresome third act. But with Rango, it is a little bit more than that. It goes through the same playbook most animated films like these goes through but adds a few adult themes and literary references into the mix to make the film more enjoyable for mature audiences. Rango is the first full-fledged CGI animated film that was created by George Lucas’ special effects company Industrial Light and Magic.
Rango has been living his life in a glass case, acting out a variety of plays with a cast that consists of a dismembered Barbie Doll, a dead insect, a plastic tree, and an orange wind-up fish toy to an absent audience. A mishap on a desert highway causes Rango to be launched from his domesticated life into the world of being on the bottom of the food chain. The story then strays away from pets trying to reunite with their owners and goes to a story of a lizard on an existential quest. Rango ventures into the town of Dirt, where a water shortage has crippled the town. Little by little landowners sign away the deeds to the land to the power hungry Tortoise John and it’s up to Rango to find out why the town of Dirt has become drier.
The thing that works for Rango is that like a chameleon it switches from the childish antics comedy Nickelodeon cartoons are known for to adult themes simultaneously. It goes from ricocheting bullets and burping fire to puzzling mammogram jokes and Hunter S. Thompson references. This is where it might get confusing for the younger audience. Can’t imagine them laughing at jokes like that, let alone understand who Hunter S. Thompson is or even know that Timothy Olyphant is trying to vocalize Clint Eastwood. Rango does carry some dark tones through out the film as well. The mariachi desert owls continuously tell the story of the demise or death of Rango and lizards in general and at one point have nooses around their next while blanketed with a dark red light. But then it goes back again to Rango “throwing” a golf club at a desert thug, or Beans (Isla Fisher) going on rant before freezing without warning.
Rango’s animation is sharp and polished. This is proven in some of the fast paced action sequences in the film. There is a scene in the second act of the film where Rango and a gang of town’s people try to retrieve their water from a rivaling desert possum gang that acts a lot like a scene from the Star Wars Death Star trench battle. The film’s lack of color adds to the dry desert feel in the movie. Rango has more than just an old west desert feel to it, there is a sense of True Grit and old Clint Eastwood movies that run through the film’s veins. All of this great work is done by a company that is not known for animation.
In addition to this animation are the lovable characters that are in the film, all of whom are voiced by a strong cast. One of the reasons why this cast works is Verbinski had all the cast members acting out their parts on a sound stage. Then he had his team of animators design what you see before you. While you may recognize Depp’s voice in Rango, you may have a little trouble recognizing Alfred Molina, Abigail Breslin, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ray Winstone. This inability to recognize any of the voices proves how good these actors are in the movie. What is also amazing about these characters is that they are both complex in detail and in depth. Rango is an awkward lizard that defines himself through his acts in his terrarium, Tortoise John (Ned Betty) is a withering tortoise who really isn’t a villain but more of a businessman, Bill Nighy’s terrific Rattlesnake Jake, and Priscilla is a cute goth like gunslinger.
One of the more surprising things about this film is the fact that it has a soundtrack conducted by Hans Zimmer. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Zimmer is indeed a genius, but the fact of the matter is a majority of it is Zimmer’s spin on recognizable scores like “Ride of the Valkyries”. It may be a bit subtle, but it is there and once you hear it you know it isn’t quite right.
From the characters, to the desert colors, this film is a tale that tells the story of various Westerns films, Chinatown, and Don Quixtoe through the eyes, ears, scales, and quills of desert beasts. Although this is ILM’s first animated feature, lets hope that it isn’t their last.