It’s rare that one comes across a movie let alone a big budget American Animated film, a genus that thrives on market testing, that is as lively as Rango. And note I did not say manic or frantic, or frenzied, or hyper active or whatever the hell else people try to substitute for genuine energy. Say what you will about it, Rango has a momentum all it’s own and personality to spare.
The story follows Rango, a lonely chameleon who ends up through bravado and sheer luck the sheriff of Dirt. Which is under the thumb of its evil mayor (modeled to look almost exactly like John Huston in Chinatown) played by Ned Beatty who at this point must a monopoly on sinister, avuncular bad guys in animated film’s that are better then you expect them to be.
If this all sounds like standard kids movie boilerplate to you, believe me it is not. The film is much closer to Depp’s other stoner western masterpiece Dead Man (“Y’see this hair is just like barn straw”), then anything out of the standard Dreamwork’s play book (or for that matter the standard John Wayne’s)
Verbinski film has a stylistic verve that is all it’s own. While he certainly knows how to, and is unafraid to touch, the cues and iconography of the western both traditional and Spaghetti, a lot of his stuff borderlines on weird west and steampunk. The result is a movie that genuinely looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Ugly isn’t the word for the animation, because the level of detail on it alone draws the eye. Yet everything on screen is deliberately unsightly, either carbuncled, tumorous, pie bald, raw or rotted. Look I know this doesn’t sound like something that’s pleasant to look at but you just kind of a have to roll with me on this one. It’s closer to Sam Peckinpah then John Ford.
Verbinski handles things with an epic sense of action (A wagon chase with a bunch of hillbilly, bat riding gophers is an early candidate for best action scene of the year) and good ole fashioned Crack comic timing. He’s aided by Hans Zimmer who delivers a score both epic (think Ennio Morricone on steroids) and playful (Ride Of The Valkeryies arranged for the banjo) and a cast that’s more then game. Including Johnny Depp, who similarly to what Nic Cage pulls of in Kick Ass, performs the career as if Pirates Of The Caribbean had not interrupted his trajectory. Also surprisingly game are Ilsa Fischer, Alfred Molina, the afore mentioned Ned Beatty, a nearly unrecognizable Bill Nighy as a rattlesnake gunslinger with a gatlin gun rattle and Timothy Oliphant who guessing from the role he tries to fill, must have balls the size of tangerines.
In short Rango is strange, beautiful and kind of wonderful. This kind of idiosyncratic filmmaking seldom gets rewarded in adult filmmaking. It’s kind of rewarding to see that children are much more receptive to it. Rango is an impressive movie all the more so because of how easy it is to see how an inferior one could have been made from its elements.