Rango is a brilliant, insane act of genius. Here is an animated comedy that is outrageously funny, but also endearing, smart and strikingly original. It expands the art of animation by creating an entirely new world populated by well-defined characters and presents both with depth and detail and imagination. Its story lovingly borrows elements from great movies of the past, everything from Apocalypse Now to Chinatown to Stagecoach and A Fistful of Dollars, yet it has the crazy, madcap pace of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
The story is wonderfully inspired. It involves the titular hero, a skinny, bug-eyed lizard who has spent most of his life alone playing in an aquarium until one day it falls out of a family car and crashes on the highway and he finds himself lost in the Nevada desert. He is Rango (with the voice of Johnny Depp), and through the winds of fate, he is blown into the tiny town of Dirt, a filthy burg populated by every western movie stereotype you can imagine, but played by a host of western varmints: turtles, ravens, prairie dogs, moles, rats, you name it. They are running out of water, which is kept stored in a 5 gallon water cooler jug. They need it for their very livelihood. Rango knows that Dirt has a problem and wants to be the guy that the townsfolk look up to even though their problems are much bigger than he initially realizes. His love interest, a rancher’s daughter named Beans (with the voice of Isla Fisher) is a little more intuitive than Rango and suspects that the water is being diverted and dumped into the desert.
The immediate threat to the town of dirt is the presence of a menacing hawk that flies overhead and threatens to eat the townsfolk for lunch. Rango – sort of by accident – kills the hawk and is degreed the town’s sheriff by Dirt’s Mayor, an aging turtle voiced by Ned Beatty. Excising the hawk, however, creates a larger problem. That comes in the (very impressive) form of a new villain named Big Snake Jake, voiced by Bill Nighy, who was afraid of the hawk but now has nothing to fear. He intimidates the population of Dirt with an underlying purpose that only gradually becomes clear. There is a lot going on in Rango, the plot is much larger and far more compelling than we are led to believe. In fact, the story, once it gets underway, is borrowed very wonderfully from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (the water part, not the incest). It took me a moment to realize that the character of The Mayor is actually designed to look and sound like John Huston’s Noah Cross and I smiled with great delight when he informs Rango about “The future, Mr. Rango. The future.”
The whole movie is like that. The more you know about movies and American myth, the deeper the movie’s roots go, and even if you don’t, the movie it still very entertaining. The story is full and generous It doesn’t telegraph it’s story in advance but reveals it gradually. At once it is a slapstick comedy, the next a wild western adventure and then a bizarre murder mystery. It creates an entire world based on western mythology and pays homage to great movies of the past without using pop culture references as a crutch.
The film is dazzling to look at. The texture of the western town has such depth and presence that you forget that all of this was manufactured by animators. There’s a great action sequence in the middle of the film in which the heroes are engaged in a gun battle int he middle of a canyon and you stop to remind yourself that this isn’t Monument Valley of all those John Wayne pictures.
The character designs are wonderful too, especially Rango, played with a sort-of Don Knotts flare right down to the Hawaiian shirt hanging from his bony frame. Johnny Depp provides the voice and it is really a good performance. Through his voice, he gives Rango as much personality and dimension as he did to Jack Sparrow or The Mad Hatter or Sweeney Todd. In fact all of the characters have a particular depth, they are all western movie types of all shapes and sizes, they are fun to watch and fun to listen to. I especially liked the presence and depth of Big Snake Jake, a rattlesnake who seems to have been inspired by Lee Van Cleef with his narrow eyes, his pencil-thin mustache and that bandolier strap wrapped around his limbless middle.
There is so much to Rango that I haven’t even touched on, I could go on and on about it. Here is a movie that has so many wonderful things in it, and such wonderful humor (There are many very big laughs here) just in the way the characters are presented and the way they talk to each other that you find yourself feeling that you feel that your second or third viewing will reveal things that you missed the first time around. I wish more animated films were this ambitious. Here is a movie so generous with its story, its visual texture and its characters that it is an example of what great animation can be.