As a general rule, animated films are family films. The cost of animation is simply too high for a studio to invest in anything other than the lowest-common denominator fare. It’s rare that any studio other than Pixar will craft an animated feature that not only appeals to kids, but has the wits and edginess that will also charm adults. Rango is one of those rarities. Director Gore Verbinski skillfully blends the broad slapstick of animated creatures having goofy adventures with smart movie references, gorgeous visuals, and impressive animation.
An unnamed chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) finds himself stranded in the Mojave Desert after his terrarium falls off his human family’s car. Rather than try to find his way home (he’s not a dog), the chameleon desperately hunts for water and his search leads him to the Western-style town of Dirt. Once there, his instincts as an actor/writer/director kick in and he decides to assume a new identity: Rango, meanest reptile in the west. The gullible townsfolk believe him and after he accidentally defeats a hawk, he’s made sheriff by the Noah Cross-esque mayor (Ned Beatty).
Rango proudly wears its Chinatown inspiration on its sleeve. The major conflict in the film is that Dirt is almost out of water, which functions not only as a refreshing beverage, but as the town’s currency. Every Wednesday, the town lines up to do an intricate line dance in order to appease the mighty desert faucet, which is now only pumping mud. After the water reserve is stolen from the bank, Rango gathers up a possum posse and seeks to reclaim the reserve (neglecting to mention that he stupidly helped the supposed thieves tunnel their way into the vault).
Everything in Rango is done with a great deal of charm. There’s plenty of slapstick and a little bit of bathroom humor, but I find these aspects far less grating when they’re coupled with a desire to be strange. The script has no problem giving its characters SAT-level vocabulary or providing the love interest (Isla Fisher) with a malfunctioning defense mechanism. Verbinski makes room for the broad comedy that everyone will enjoy and a bunch of movie references and wordplay jokes that only adults will get.
What’s wonderful about Rango is how it deftly balances the light, silly humor with the darker, more thoughtful aspects of the story. There’s pathos to Rango’s story as he struggles to make his own identity and there’s smart commentary about the nature of authenticity against the backdrop of Hollywood’s facade of the west. But then you’ll see a hawk inserting quarters into a vending machine or Rango quickly explaining that camouflaging is “an art not a science,” and the movie continues on at its brisk pace. Only when it reaches the third act does the story begin to feel a bit drawn out and in need of some trimming.
However, the length isn’t too much of a problem because Verbinski has created such a delightful world. All of the voice acting is terrific, but Depp in particular does tremendous work with his Rango voice and you can really hear him throwing himself into the performance. The animation of the characters is equally outstanding. The cast is comprised of southwestern fauna such as reptiles, amphibians (“Ain’t no shame in that.”), and rodents, and Verbinski doesn’t try to make them look cuddly. He understands that giving them big, expressive eyes will make them relatable to the audience, and then he can let the animators do impressive work when it comes to how their skin shifts and moves. And it’s all tied together with some gorgeous visuals, which should comes as no surprise when you consider that cinematographer Roger Deakins (True Grit) served as a visual consultant on the picture.
Rango proves there’s room for studios other than Pixar (and to a lesser extent, DreamWorks) to make CGI animation that’s kid-tested and adult-approved. I applaud Paramount for taking a chance on an oddball premise populated by ugly-looking-but-still-adorable-in-their-own-weird-way characters. I love how the film blends silliness with smarts. If The Far Side creator Gary Larson ever wrote a script for a Hollywood movie, it might resemble Rango, and that’s one of the highest compliments I can give.