8 years ago Gore Verbinski teamed up with Johnny Depp to make a movie that no-one in their right mind thought was going to be a success. Pirate movies were dead and buried and it took the monumental success of Verbinski and Depp’s first endeavour to show that genre movies can work, if the source material is good enough. 8 years later Pirates 4 sails over the horizon, Verbinski has walked the plank following the disappointing story-telling of Pirates 2 and 3, and Depp has just made The Tourist. Suffice to say that the two of them could do with a hit right now, but is an animated western really the way to go…
Rango tells the story of a chameleon called, well we never actually find that out, who lives a solitary existence in a terrarium. Starved for companionship he survives the days by using his fertile imagination to act out plays and create scenarios utilising a clockwork fish and a decapitated doll. Suddenly he falls from a moving car and lands in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Seeking refuge he happens upon the old desert town of Dirt, a town populated with a cacophony of desert creatures living a meagre existence in the harsh environs. Using his anonymity he fashions himself as a gunslinger, tells a fantastical story of bravery and bravado and winds up becoming the local sheriff. It soon becomes clear however that all is not well in this quite little town and pretty soon Rango is going to be called into action.
The characters in Rango are magnificent. There’s at least 20 different desert critters each with their own unique character and personality, each interesting and worthy of their own moment in the sun. That in itself is a wondrous feat of film-making. The star of the show is of course the Johnny Depp voiced Rango. Depp imbues Rango with a vibrancy, urgency and nagging self-doubt of a guy who knows his entire persona is built on a crumbling deck-of-cards. Depp inhabits the character, causing the audience to forget that he’s providing the voice and allowing Rango to become the star. Isla Fisher does a strong quirky turn as Beans, her accent is spot on and her comic sensibility very much to the forefront. Ned Beatty does a villain well, his Lotso in Toy Story 3 was perhaps better but he’s still solid here. Bill Nighy’s Rattlesnake Jake is the prototypical Western bad-guy and Nighy gives a suitably evil performance. As good as Depp is though there is one better, Abigail Breslin as Priscilla. Sombre, morose, sweet and more than a little scary her proclamations and utterations give weight and substance to the plight of this poor town. She is the essence of why Rango must win out. Oh and the Mariachi band are brilliant.
The animation is superb. It’s fluid and dynamic and shows that 2D is not quite dead yet when it comes to drawing a story. Visually sumptuous the Roger Deakins’ inspired cinematography captures the west in a manner that compares favourably to Deakins own Oscar nominated turn in True Grit. This movie marks Industrial Light and Magic’s first foray into animation, and if they can continue in this mould Pixar is about to get serious competition. There’s an aerial assault/chase sequence here that is simply something special. John Logan’s script is peppered with movie references and homages that offer something to hardcore cinema-goers and yet never distract from the tale. Sure the plot itself could be the basis of any Western but there’s dialogue and discourse enough to elevate it from the dust and allow Verbinski a platform for greatness. And then there’s Hans Zimmer’s score… Referencing Ennio Morricone’s classic work and adding a twist the soundtrack here will have you humming long after you leave the cinema.
Great animation coupled with strong characters, a good story and an inspired score, there’s a lot to love here. Even with some minor flaws too trivial to mention Rango is top-class entertainment.