Friday, March 11, 2011

New Release Review: Rango (Gore Verbinski, 2011)

Rango may just be the most fun you will have at the cinema this year. But those of you drawn by the voice talent of Johnny Depp and interested in being charmed by the tale of this goofy-looking chameleon, should be made aware that this is not the typical family film. Almost all of the subtle jokes and cultural references are directed at a mature and film educated audience, while the film's somewhat gruesome characters, let alone the dense plot, may prove to be all too much for the little ones. Still, this is one of the most beautifully captured and cleverly written computer-animated films ever made outside of Pixar studios. Director Gore Verbinski has rekindled his partnership with Depp (the pair worked together on the Pirates of the Caribbean films) and working with an impressive self-aware screenplay from John Logan, has created an action packed animated masterpiece that meshes together the elements of the classic Sergio Leone Western with the noirish brutality and moral complexities of Chinatown. Rango succeeds on all counts, whether you feel like an animation, a comedy or a western.

Rango is about an unnamed pet chameleon (Depp) who has a serious identity crisis. In the opening sequence we see him interacting with the assorted toys and props that adorn his glass-walled enclosure. Wishing someday to be endowed with the heroic qualities that transform him into someone respected, he acts out scenarios with his friends and self-proclaims himself the hero. "Every story needs a hero" he exclaims. When his owners swerve suddenly to miss an obstacle on the road, the impact sends his enclosure through the rear window of the speeding car and leaves him stranded in the Mojave desert. A spiritual armadillo (Alfred Molina), the cause of the near-accident, points him in the direction of the Old West town of Dirt, populated by an assortment of desert animals. During his initial journey across the arid terrain, he is attacked repeatedly by a hawk and barely survives. After suffering a surreal and vivid nightmare, he finds himself flushed out of his shelter pipe by a powerful stream of water, bumping into a lizard named Ms. Beans (Isla Fisher). Desperately trying to maintain her ranch, she expresses clear trouble at the dumping of the water and explains that the water reserves at her nearby town of Dirt are dangerously low.

The pair make for Dirt, where our hero soon finds himself immersed amongst the towns undesirables. Upon entry to the local saloon he is met with interest but hostility, and he sees it as a chance to reinvent himself into someone new. He is a stranger in a new town and believes, with a bit of luck to overcome his declared limitations, he could masquerade as the heroic figure this town requires. Through a combination of smooth talking, bravado and acting skill, he presents himself as the tough drifter, Rango. After miraculously killing the hawk, which had returned to prey on the townsfolk, Rango is appointed Sheriff by Mayor Tortoise (Ned Beatty), an immobile, white stetson wearing tyrant. Beans declares that Rango's first priority is to investigate the water problem, whose now critical bank supply has the town in a panic.

The Mayor, who treats himself to vintage rainwater like it is the world's finest whiskey, seems unperturbed by the problem and surrounds himself with corrupt outlaws, led by Bad Bill (Ray Winstone). When the town's water supply is believed to have been stolen by moles, Rango leads a posse to pursue the thieves. They find the body of the town banker, Merrimack, drowned in the desert, before surrounding the thieves in their mountain hideout. An exciting chase and gun fight ensues as the posse (who have nabbed the stolen water supply) is pursued by a huge clan of moles and prairie dogs, whose assault is both from the ground and from the air (they swoop in on bats to "Ride of the Valkyries"). But once it is discovered that the bottle had been empty upon initial theft, Rango seeks to uncover the true source of water control in Dirt. He battles ostracism, lost-identity and the Gatling Gun tail of Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) to save the town of Dirt from complete destruction.

Rango is gifted with absolutely stunning animated visuals, with incredible attention to details. Each of the Dirt townsfolk are endowed with unique characteristics, and every last patch of grime on their costumes and every cigar-stained tooth is accentuated. Rango and Bean are the two cutest characters, but even Rango is still too odd to be adored by children. There are a lot of characters in this film, and what it does so well is balancing their involvement. Sure, Rango is front and centre, but they each have distinct individual qualities and a unique voice.

Renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins, like in last years How to Train Your Dragon, is brought in as a cinematographic consultant, and his involvement is very apparent. From the intricacies of kicked up dust whenever the characters walk, to the sun-flares that strike the camera whenever it is directed skyward, this is one clever animation. There is even a shot from between the legs of Rango as he lines up to duel Bad Bill, which is a shot straight out of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The enormous work put into Rango's key action sequence will also blow you away.

I was blown away by the marvellous score throughout, and I realized in the closing credits that Hans Zimmer (Inception) was responsible. Not a surprise. The voice talent is flawless also. Johnny Depp completely embodies the zany Rango. So much so, that he appears to be a lizard-version of Johnny Depp's character, Raoul Duke, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He is even equipped with the Acapulco shirt. Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy and Ned Beatty (who has twice provided the voice for a domineering villain in recent animated features) are all exceptional. Beatty has stated that he based his performance on that of John Huston's in Chinatown. Noah Cross' intimidating white stetson in Polanski's film is matched here by Mayor Tortoise, whose entire persona seems to replicate Cross.

What I personally enjoyed the most about Rango was picking out the myriad of cultural references. Film buffs will love this film as it pays homage to Chinatown, Apocalypse Now and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to name just a few. Clint Eastwood's 'Man With No Name', who encapsulates the Spirit of the West, provides life-changing advice to Rango in a memorable cameo. John Logan's fantastic screenplay cleverly weaves together allusions to these great films but still manages to not only conform to the structure of the Western but provide enough action packed chase sequences to keep hold the interest of modern audiences. Having established the limitations of Rango early in the film, the mariachi-wielding owl band provide an amusing commentary of Rango's fate. I absolutely loved Rango. I read such great reviews during its first week in the United States that I felt I had to see it. Believe the hype because this soon-to-be-crowned animated classic will surely be one of the best films to grace cinemas this year.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars (A-)


  1. Excellent review, Andy. The animation was mind-blowingly detailed and so full of life. I loved it! Plus I thought its quirkiness was its main strength. ;)

  2. Thanks Nebular. I loved its quirkiness, and its satirical angle on not just the Western, but the cinematic hero. The talented voice cast, the stunning animated visuals, and the crisp dialogue were all above my expectations. Thanks for stopping by.