Gore Verbinski is perhaps best known these days at the director of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and its two sequels Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Having worked his way up to the massive Jerry Bruckheimer blockbusters, via Brad Pitt/Julia Roberts vehicle The Mexican and the J-horror remake The Ring, it is easy to forget that he made his feature debut on the children’s film Mouse Hunt. Verbinski returns to his roots with a crazy western-action-animated hybrid that goes by the innocuous name of Rango.
A chameleon with no name (voiced by Johnny Depp, The Tourist) is accidentally flung from his owners’ truck and find himself in the middle of the desert. After a brief encounter with an armadillo (Alfred Molina, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), he winds up in an Old West town in the middle of the Mojave Desert named Dirt. The town seems to have stepped straight out of a million dime-store westerns, complete with a powerful and shady mayor (Ned Beatty, Toy Story 3) and the chameleon quickly establishes himself as the gunslinging hero Rango, despite any discernible talent. Falling head over tail for Beans (Isla Fisher, Confessions of a Shopaholic), Rango attempts to uncover the water crisis that has befallen the town of Dirt but uncovers a complex plot in the process.
Inspired by the filmed history of the Old West, and in particular Sergio Leone’s so-called spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, Rango may just mark a turning point in the marketing of animation to adult audiences. Animated films of the last decade or so have been either marketed at a family audience including the high achievers such as Toy Story 3 and Up, or gone for broad anachronistic comedy of the Shrek variety. Rango seems to create something entirely different, being an existential western first and foremost, and it just happens to be an animated comedy. Yet in many ways, Rango is a story that could not be told in any other medium than animation, as it exists entirely in an imagined reality that could never occur. Naturally, animals don’t talk and wear clothes in our reality, but Rango‘s reality is one that only ever existed in the films on the wild west. Characters have each stepped out of other films, and the film is wall-to-wall with movie references. There are the obvious ones to classic western films, but there is plenty in there for those paying attention. There’s a nice Hunter S. Thompson/Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas gag early in the film, and it barely lets up after that. Even the mayor is a reference to John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown. If anything, this may be the only barriers in stopping all audiences from enjoying the film, with many of these moments bound to fly over the heads of younger audience members. Yet this is a minor quibble in what is otherwise a near-perfect piece of modern animation.
The cinematography, aided by consultant Roger Deakins, is the slickest and most sophisticated seen on an animated film in recent memory. Technologically somewhere between CG animation and the motion-capture on the recent Robert Zemeckis animation version of A Christmas Carol, Rango‘s cast of characters have subtlety and nuance, and are so finely rendered that you would be forgiven for thinking they are real. The use of light and shadow (or should we say, ‘simulated light’) in the film is revelatory, giving the film a level of depth previously unseen – and all without the aid of 3D! Yet it is the old-fashioned art of storytelling – coupled with a terrific voice cast that also includes Bill Nighy, Abigail Breslin, Ray Winstone and Timothy Olyphant to name a few – that lifts Rango above the rest of the game.
The Reel Bits: Rango is an instant classic, not just as a piece of animation, but as one of the best westerns in years. Drawing on the traditions of over a century of westerns, coupled with the outstanding voice talents and gorgeous cinematic animation.
Rango is released on March 10, 2011 in Australia by Paramount Pictures.