A fantastic western wrapped in a deceptive kid-flick coating.
March 08, 2011 – Rango came as a real surprise to me. I wasn’t expecting the film to be nearly as good as it is, partially because I didn’t know what it was supposed to be about. But in the end I discovered a thoroughly engaging western that uses old tropes and new tricks to make the whole package feel fresh and interesting. What appears on the outside to be a kid’s flick is really anything but. Oh, there are occasional slapstick moments, to be sure, but this is a film laced with hard times, villains of various stripes, scary images and concepts, character deaths, imagery of hangings, drowning, gun battles, drug use, adult language, and few if any of the characters are cute and cuddly. This is a film with comedy and anthropomorphic animals, yes, but I’d venture to say there is little actually “kiddie” about it, and that is a very good thing.
A chameleon is living out a fantasy life in his glass box in the back of the family vehicle when a fast swerve sends him flying from the window onto the harsh highway that passes through the Mohave desert. He eventually finds his way to a town called Dirt, which is near to dying from drought. Realizing he can be whoever he wants to be, he adopts the name Rango and makes a show of himself, claiming to be a skilled sharpshooter and all around bad boy. After accidentally “proving” these claims, he is quickly hailed as Sheriff, which drags him deeper and deeper into the towns problems, and well over his head. What follows is a test of character that follows Rango’s exploits, addressing issues of self-identity, honesty, determination and overcoming your fears and mistakes. It’s all very clichéd stuff when you read it out like that, but if you do a cliché right, what you have is an archetype. What you have, is Rango.
The characters and plot are interesting, usually complex (the side characters are understandably more two dimensional than Rango, but still not cut-outs), and involving enough so that you never feel too bored or uninvolved. The beginning is a little slow, but I’m convinced that has more to do with my mixed expectations than actual slow pacing. There are a number of excellent action sequences interspersed with calmer moments that serve the characters nicely, and the story builds up to a well done climactic confrontation that relies more on wit and character than gun-blazing.
The actors all play their parts admirably, from Johnny Depp’s likeable, but silly and dishonest Rango, to Ned Beatty’s sly Mayor, all of the characters are portrayed skillfully. I don’t think there was a single poor performance among the lot of them. Rango had the most interesting character arc, of course, and is by far the most memorable after the audience leaves the theater, but the indomitable and down-to-earth Beans (Isla Fisher), the weird but kinda cute Priscilla (Abigail Breslin) and the menacing and sinister Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) will also probably remain in their minds for some time. The movie does a remarkable job at making these characters and scenarios memorable. That isn’t very common outside of a Pixar movie.
With all of these qualities, its a little bit of a shame that many audiences will leave the theater exclusively praising the excellent animation, but the real star of the show is, in my opinion, the characters and story. And don’t get me wrong, the animation is a joy. Outside of Pixar I don’t think I’ve ever seen a CG animated film this pretty. The art direction is also fantastic, taking the exact opposite road of most cutesy kid films by rubbing everything that would otherwise be adorable in mud and sand, and running it over once or twice. This actually serves to make it stand out amongst an otherwise bland assortment of kid films and their almost ceramic and plastic visuals. The cinematography is also terrific, with the editors and CG camera-men finding magnificent and artistic shots. For a film this gritty, it finds a whole lot of beauty to go with it. Also, the music is great, if very much a product of the styling of classic westerns.
If I had to complain about anything it would be that the slapstick that occasionally shows up isn’t entirely welcome. Not only that, but Beans has a peculiar character quirk that I never really bought, and while it made her unique, I felt it was more gimmick than substance. Only occasionally did the formula run too plain, as it was usually successfully buried under interesting characters and visuals, but those moments do occur. Finally, while this has little to do with the actual quality of the film, do not take little kids to see it. It is not the entire-family friendly film I think it has been marketed to be.
Gore Verbinsky has directed a terrific, surreal western in Rango, managing to take classic tropes of the genre and make them feel new. I can’t stress enough how well everything works together. Pieces that should simply clash turn out to compliment one another, and everything from the writing and acting to the cinematography is done with aplomb. It may be too early to say, but I think we’ve got our first Animated Film Oscar contender for the year. Pixar, it’s your move.
STAR RATING: (4 & 1/2)