I’m not quite sure what I expected from Rango, but it wasn’t this.
The clues were there, really, in the posters and trailers. There was that Hawaiian shirt, and that crick in the neck recalling another famous poster. Then of course, there was Johnny Depp in a cartoon that sounded somewhat surreal. But I definitely didn’t expect another outing for his Hunter S. Thompson impression (ahead of The Rum Diary) and what can only be called Gonzo animation (not animation from Gonzo) – before it settles neatly into a straightforward tribute to Western films. It's one of those neat comedy films that starts out as a parody before settling into relying on the familiar tropes and clichés to evoke the sincere emotions that made the original genres work so well – Shaft do this well, as did Baka to Test.
Rango is a pet chameleon with only the toys and ornaments of his glass cage to serve as his connection to the world – he believes himself an actor and director, and while pondering what he ought to be, an accident in the car results in him losing his family and being left alone by the roadside. After a rather hallucinogenic meeting with an armadillo that couple with Rango’s eccentric, Thompson-derived personality at once makes the film look incredibly drug-addled and creeps out any small kids who’ve been brought to see this ‘cartoon’, he ends up in the Californian/Nevadan desert, notorious for containing Death Valley. After his death is prophesised by some cute, grumpy mariachi owls, he is chased by a huge hawk and meets Beans, who at first seems like a typical southern-belle/redneck caricature with the odd tick of freezing as a ‘survival instinct’. Rango stumbles into the Wild West town of Dirt, and manages to avoid being mocked and possibly murdered by ‘blending in’, acting the part of a rough-talking cowboy and, thanks to some dumb luck typical of the character type and the return of the hawk, not only being believed but becoming the town’s sheriff. But the town is running out of water, and someone’s tampering with the supply, and it’s up to Rango to sort things out. But with the hawk gone, a notorious outlaw might come back to town, one who might be able to see right through Rango’s camouflage.
As I said, the film starts out surreal, bewildering and influenced by Hunter S. Thompson’s freewheeling narrative style, a likeable, intelligent but very clumsy and physically inept character just managing to get out of scrapes through luck or saying the right thing at the right time. But then it bends at just the right angle – through action scenes and clever visual parodies of other well-known action films – to heartfelt cowboy story (nodding back towards the strange with a cameo from a very recognisable figure), ending up with a story arc that has comedic characters you actually come to like and a situation you genuinely want to end well. There wasn’t quite enough closure at the end – I wanted to know what was going to stop the humans simply coming and messing it up for the animals very quickly – but this was a deft move to make and it worked better than I had expected it to. It may not pluck at the heartstring and move you like a direct, sincere story, but it bridges comedy and drama much better than many other animated films that try the same – like most of Dreamworks’ output.
Industrial Light and Magic also lent their CG to this film, and it looks absolutely incredible. This is one of the best CG films I’ve ever seen – and it’s not the characters and their movements and the textures of their faces that is the most stunning, impressive though they are. It’s how perfect water looks, poured into a glass. It’s the way the lens that doesn’t exist is affected by the refraction of light that doesn’t exist when pointed towards a sun that doesn’t exist. It’s glass breaking and the machine gun in a rattlesnake’s tail winding down. It’s the small details. Look for them and you’ll be consistently impressed.
This could have been a near-miss. Happily, it’s a substantial success.