Snappy dialogue and vibrant animation bring a lizard and a legend to life
by Jared Peterson
The animated feature Rango is a fairly delightful dish, a Southwestern-style puttanesca of cartoon physicality and clever inside jokes, with layers of knowing allusion to the tropes and images of film classics.
The story is the stuff of legend, and all legends begin in obscurity. Before Rango was Rango he was just an average lizard, someone’s pet—albeit one with an overactive imagination and aspirations to theatrical renown. When his terrarium-cum-rehearsal space is accidentally ejected from the family car on a desert highway, he finds himself wandering the wastes in search of help. He happens upon another lizard, the unfortunately named Beans (Isla Fisher), who reluctantly leads him back homet, to a town called Dirt, which is in the grip of a cripping drought. Looking for a glass of water in a saloon of unwelcoming strangers, he soon runs his mouth sufficiently to conjure a meaty new role to play, complete with a tough-sounding name and a false reputation as an infamous gunslinger—one which he reinforces, quite by accident, in an act of hapless improv. Thus, Rango is born. The Mayor (Ned Beatty) deputizes him and sets him up as a ray of hope for the downtrodden mammals and reptiles of the town. But corruption and sinister plans rear their ugly heads, and Rango’s status is elevated, then challenged, and then finally morphs into something like real heroism.
In story and structure, Rango closely emulates The Three Amigos, with a dollop of Chinatown thrown in for consistency (the plot hinges on the dirty politics of a desert water grab) and a dash of Raising Arizona for tangy flavor. The script by John Logan is brisk and clever, and it leans heavily on the redneck verbosity of movies like Arizona that rely on the (frankly true) notion that SAT words like “halcyon”, “perforated” and “paradigm” sound especially funny in a Southwestern twang. The intricate dialogue is laden with quips and pop culture references that will fly over most kids’ heads and tickle the adults in the audience. But pacing is a vital part of humor like this—and, especially for younger viewers, missing a meaning doesn’t equal missing the joke.
Rambling patter has certainly been Johnny Depp’s gold-plated bread and butter in recent years, in such chatty, if heavily slurred, roles like Hunter S. Thompson and Captain Jack Sparrow. Depp is a gifted character actor floating in the rarefied air of superstardom. To my mind, there’s always been a certain lack of depth in his live-action work; an animated romp is therefore a perfect outlet for the whimsy he wields so expertly. The voice cast is rounded out with fine talent like Beatty, Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, and the superb Bill Nighy as the menacing Rattlesnake Jake. (A word about Jake: he is scary. He appears true to life and is seen very close up; young children—not to mention older, ophidiophobic viewers—may find him hard to watch.)
Gore Verbinski, who helmed the Pirates of the Caribbean movies—all 107 or them, or so it seems—has used an interesting directing technique for an animated film. Rather than keeping his actors in isolation, crammed into a recording studio or covered in dozens of tiny dots for a motion-capture camera system, Verbinski had them perform in street clothes on a soundstage, allowing them to work with and off each other as an ensemble—all the better to inform the animators of their natural movements, and to seize on an ineffable quality of human interaction. This is a further benefit to Depp, who can bring his adept physicality to the role as well; but the process bodes well for the craft of acting in general, and I’m all for seeing and hearing more of it.
We’ve come to expect effortless wonders from our computer animation—and computer animators keep delivering. Here, the starkness of the desert setting was the key challenge to surmount. Light and surface are vitally important, and both are depicted with microscopic clarity. Rarely does a critic describe a film as “arid” and mean it as a compliment. But in Rango, the sense of dryness is palpable, and the harshness of the Nevada desert’s endless noons draws even more attention to the play of light across sand and scrub, and fur and scale.
Rango is rated PG. There are extended sequences of peril, including high-speed chases and showdowns with predatory animals, including the aforementioned snake. This being a western, guns and gunplay figure prominently. Alcohol consumption is sometimes depicted or implied, and a couple of characters smoke or chew on cigars. Swearing is minimal—one or two h-words and a slightly harsher term drowned out by a sound effect. (“Son of a [screech]!) There is also crude humor, some for all ages (fart jokes) and some only adults will understand (an allusion to a prostate exam.) Enjoy.