When Rango was first announced, it seemed like a dream come true. An animated film starring a lizard that embraces and likely parodies the Western genre? Now there’s something for you. Unfortunately, there was that whole trailer thing … well, let’s just say the trailers were downright tepid and filled with jokes that seemed more clever than funny, products of a writer hopped up on his or her own ego.
Thankfully, though, there’s much more to like, and much more that is self-referential, about Rango. The trailers mostly painted it as a pastiche – and yeah, this film is basically a pastiche of old Westerns. Just about everything that happens it in can be traced to a healthy, long line of cliche. But it’s a loving pastiche, and that’s the real key here. Its central character lacks the singular vision of Johnny Depp’s other Gore Verbinski-directed performance, the career-defining Captain Jack in Pirates of the Caribbean, but this is the better homage and film all around. What Verbinski did with pirates was give us a competent pastiche with a brilliantly out-of-left field cartoon of a main character. It’s fitting then that his next new-property featuring Johnny Depp is literally a cartoon. It also happens to be more focused, more caring, and more energetic on the whole. It plays like a long lost Western rediscovered. It just happens to star a lizard and a host of other desert animals instead of humans.
Perhaps for the best, Rango doesn’t overindulge on story nuance. Basically, Rango (Johnny Depp) is a domestic lizard who, after falling out of a moving car, finds himself stranded in the desert. Making his way to “Dirt”, a desert town populated by animals, he becomes the new sheriff after accidentally taking out a hawk that had perpetually ravaged the town’s mental stability. As the new sheriff, it falls to him to discover what has happened to the town’s water supply, something that is vital for survival in the harsh, oppressive desert atmosphere of Dirt. Of course, there’s more complexity from there on, with vaguely noirish underpinnings and a certain (kind-of) moral ambiguity that more closely approximates revisionist Westerns and their focus on the flexibility of Western moralism and the ways traditional villains and heroes both occupy middle grounds (not going so far to say this reminds of Johnny Depp’s other Western where a man who doesn’t belong, rather than a gun-toting dude-for-hire, wanders into a town unexpectedly, Dead Man, but it’s not that much of a stretch to mention Jarmusch’s film).
But what makes the film is how it re-reads the Western visual tapestry for its own purposes. Simply put, the film’s animation is stunning, technically and artistically. While the technical aspect makes sense, considering that the film’s animation is handled by special effects powerhouse ILM, the creativity and depth of character on display here is a real find. The character designs in particular are all expertly crafted and imaginative, always providing a reason to look in the corners of the film for something that you might not otherwise catch – especially for the famously dry Western genre, it’s a surprisingly dense film, with all manner of hustle and bustle and forward and backward motion that create a sort of pure visual excitement that always draws the eyes.
But Verbinski doesn’t just enhance the visuals; he uses them to define character – after all, Westerns were always about larger than life characters to begin with, and making Rango’s archetypal characters out to be caricatured animals fits extremely well with the film’s mythic attitude toward Western logic. We get spiky, distorted creatures with personalities that are revealed, and occasionally subverted, by surface-level looks, just as many Westerns before defined their characters based on who was wearing a white or black hat. So we have a rattlesnake as an outlaw, a trio of wise owls as sooth-saying musicians – you get the idea. If this appears superficial, that’s the point. Westerns of old defined character in one-note, superficial ways – Rango is just lovingly, and mockingly, taking this to its logical extent. There’s also something brilliant in the main character moseying down a dusty main street in a Hawaiian shirt, a suburban milquetoast type lost in a self-consciously artificial Western world. Verbinski has defined himself as a stylist in the past (and a cartoon stylist at that, bringing an animated quality to live-action works like Pirates of the Caribbean), and with greatest-working-cinematographer Roger Deakins on loan as a visual consultant, Rango has a true sense of space and place matched only by its ability to distill look as a means of replicating and expanding on character and mood.
For Depp’s part, he’s often unrecognizable as Rango, adopting something of a Southern drawl and intermixing naivety, anxiety, and confidence to comment on the amusing need to feign a sheriff image, to fill a role, even when he’s basically just … the type of dude who would wear a Hawaiian shirt if given the choice. His performance is key for Rango to succeed – his bland, passive voice fits perfectly with the nature of the character as an everyday suburbanite – and he pulls it off with gusto. Ned Beatty (as the town’s mayor), Ray Winstone (as outlaw Bad Bill), Isla Fisher (as semi-romantic interest Beans), and Bill Nighy (as Rattlesnake Jake, the most fearsome outlaw in the town of Dirt) all provide solid support in the “characters as slithering types” mode so central to Westerns.
All this boils down to something that seems very clearly constructed by the minds of men and women who love the genre they are re-creating. Rango is a movie made for movie fans – it’s in love with every frame of classic cinema, and more importantly, every frame of itself. Everything, from the overall story, to the look of the film, to the characters, to little things scattered about, shows a great knowledge and appreciation for the genre. As much as one would be giddy to do so, throwing out a word like “auteur-like” isn’t quite appropriate, but Verbinski definitely seems to have had a heavy-hand in this re-reading of the genre for the intentional fairy-tale artifice it exhibited in days of old. After-all, Westerns were bedtime stories for children (and adults) to remind of simpler times, and it’s fitting that Verbinski’s film is an open-faced children’s storybook (quite literally when it comes to the seemingly non-diegetic owls who exist outside of the film as storytellers). There’s a definite sense throughout that everything in it was intended specifically to evoke something about the West not as reality but as it existed in film. Everything has the air of being assembled with care – the look of characters tweaked to be just right, the camera movement maneuvered to be just so, and a surfeit of mouth-drying aridity perpetuating the film to poke fun at the very idea of living out in the Old West.
Simply put, Rango is a true delight. It boasts a laundry list of all the requisite buzzwords people look to in order to justify movies they don’t really have much of an explanation for liking – style, cuteness, the vague amorphous concept of charm which more often than not simply means “attempt at charm” – but it has much more. Namely, something long forgotten in the film world: flavor. This gives it a certain shagginess, like something that just doesn’t fit in and includes things seemingly, above all, to fit the director’s fancy. But it’s all the more lovable for its notable eccentricities – after all, it’s an arch-Western, so including things simply for their Western-ness is just part of the metatextual fun.