Back when the first trailers for Rango came out, I was instantly hooked. That’s what happens when you mix Johnny Depp with a cartoon chameleon for me. When I went to see it in theaters, I feared that the film would fall to my own hype. What I saw exceeded all my expectations and left me with joyful excitement. The film’s award for Best Animated Feature was well deserved, and I hope to see Gore Verbinski direct more animated films.
Rango is originally a pet chameleon so empty he doesn’t even have a name. He spends his days putting on plays in his little world with the few companions in his terrarium. Of course, he has given himself the role of the hero, but what is his motive? He understands somewhat that he is a lonely shell of a character who needs to be put onto the path of an adventure. And with that, an armadillo in the road sends him out of the car, into the desert and onto destiny. His path is filled with becoming the new sheriff of Dirt, fighting off the town’s enemies and uncovering a mystery on where the town’s precious water has gone.
Now, chameleons are all about adapting and blending into their surroundings. Rango is not exactly perfect at this, but we love to see him try. There is a great moment where he mimics a few different people’s walks. Once he meets Beans (Isla Fisher) and finds his way into Dirt, he seems to understand what an outsider he truly is. He takes this moment to redefine himself, blend in, and become who he wants to be: the hero.
Visually, this film holds some of the greatest character animation I have ever seen. We tend to think of cartoon animals in this fluffy, cute, glossed over style. In Rango, all the critters of Dirt are full of gritty details. I love how you can see ever scale, whisker and feather so vividly that you can imagine what they feel like, and none of them are fluffy. Many of the critters have large, bulbous eyes that look so very real and full of intelligence. Each of the voices, supplied by many well known stars, fits the look and personality of each character perfectly, I especially loved Abigail Breslin’s slightly deadpan rodent girl with the giant eyes.
I can see most older children (say, six and up) really enjoying Rango alongside adults, who will understand more jokes and classic references. However, I can also see younger children being a little creeped out by some of the characters. The combination of booming voice, sharp fangs and gun barrel tail on Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) can take grown ups aback for a moment.
What I really love about Rango is that the story has a good mix of action, mystery, comedy and wild west adventure. There are many moments in the movie that harken back to classic films. The plot has a bit of Chinatown mixed in, the Spirit of the West looks just like Clint Eastwood and many of the wild west details are straight out of other classic westerns. And that mariachi band of owls who narrate and give Rango a heroic theme song are the perfect cherry on top.
“From out the dust, came a man true and bold, Champion of the fandango, By night he drank whiskey, by day killed bad man, And the townspeople knew him as Rango.”