Rango may be the most original film to be released this year… and if that doesn’t hold some significance, you haven’t been paying attention. We’re inundated with remakes, reboots, adaptations and regurgitations, driven by a psychotic fear of anything new (and hence unknown). In their relentless search for reliable moneymakers, the studios have seemingly forgotten how to tell their own stories… unless they’re trolling for Oscars, in which case a simple “based on the amazing true story” will do just fine. And yet in the middle of it all, there sits this strange and wonderful flight of imagination: from a director best known for bringing a theme park ride to the screen, no less. Miracles still happen… even in Hollywood. Hit the jump for my full review.
Which isn’t to say we should be entirely surprised. Gore Verbinski always maintained a quirky sense of whimsy in his films, even the big ones. The currency he accrued on the Pirates franchise bought him a chance to try something different, and with a little help from Johnny Depp, he takes full advantage of the opportunity.
How does one describe the results onscreen? A thespian chameleon (voiced by Depp) is inadvertently dumped in the desert and eventually finds his way to a town in the grips of drought. The population of freakishly misshapen animals needs a hero; the chameleon needs an audience. So he quickly reinvents himself as Rango: fastest gun in the West and savior to a people in need. But walking the walk isn’t the same as talking the talk, and the town’s various predators have no problems poking the little guy to see if he pops.
The structure feels familiar, with a well-meaning phony getting tangled in his own lies, but Verbinski consistently finds new ways to avoid the clichés. This comes across not only in the visuals – which seek out the strangest ways to bring this world to life, then make the decisions appear like the most natural thing in the world – but also in the character himself. Depp shifts gears a number of times, then settles into the bumbling sheriff routine for the bulk of the picture. It works so well that we forget Rango’s just pretending, until the inevitable comeuppance/redemption arc where he finds his true self. The character himself has no idea who he really is, which might have derailed the whole thing (Depp struggled with similar acting gymnastics in Alice in Wonderland). Thankfully, both actor and director keep a firm grasp on Rango’s soul, and ensure that the various twists and turns don’t turn the hero into a jumble of unattached traits.
Rango also does wonders when sending up the trappings of the Western (as well as taking a few digs at Chinatown in the process). Here, Verbinski’s unique sense of humor and the one-of-a-kind visual look combine to create a true feeling of originality. It doesn’t just regurgitate Blazing Saddles with a lizard in Cleavon Little’s place. Its jabs and riffs are entirely its own, infused with a gonzo spirit and just enough acid-trip sensibilities to keep the stoners satisfied. Indeed, this film tends to work much better for adults than children: the sophisticated tone may fly above the heads of the tiny tots, and while the chameleon’s pratfalls can certainly amuse small children, the film speaks primarily to their parents… especially those raised on Clint Eastwood and John Wayne.
The results can be baffling at times, but only because we’re so unaccustomed to seeing a work of real originality from a big Hollywood studio. Verbinski claims that the seed of the character began with Pirates, as he watched Jack Sparrow skitter across the beach ahead of the natives. If that’s the case, then it proves that imagination hasn’t yet been extinguished amid the Byzantine corporate apparatus of Hollywood event pictures. We should be grateful to Rango for reminding us of that fact… and to his creators for allowing it to flourish.
The disc itself contains a satisfying number of extras, including a DVD and digital copy along with the Blu-Ray. A slightly longer “director’s cut” of the film is available in addition to the theatrical cut, as well as audio commentary on the longer version. The usual trailers, commercials and promotional materials are included, plus a pair of behind-the-scenes documentaries and a bevy of deleted scenes. The best extras are a Discovery-Channel style doc covering the real creatures who served as inspiration for the characters, and a program that lets you explore a virtual version of the town of Dirt.