“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” – Willliam Shakespeare.
Gore Verbinski’s highly entertaining, thought-provoking Rango deals with a player who doesn’t know his part, a lonely, unnamed pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) who passes his time putting on plays with the props in his tank, who yearns to know his purpose, and ultimately his identity.
He gets his chance when a bizarre twist of events leaves him stranded in the desert, where he is found by the desert iguana Beans (Isla Fisher) and taken to the town of Dirt, a town that hasn’t developed since the Old West, and is inhabited by animals that lived in Walt Disney’s nightmares: toads, gila monsters and bearded dragons, to name a few. In order to adapt to the harsh environment he finds himself in, the chameleon creates a new character to play: Rango, the toughest gunslinger in the West. Rango is rapidly appointed sheriff, where he must overcome his lack of confidence in himself to become the hero Dirt expects him to be, by saving them from impending drought and a ferocious gunslinger named Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy).
Rango is one of the most unusual, quirky and pensive animated movies ever made, so I daresay it isn’t for everyone. The humour ranges from classic slapstick to risque innuendoes (“What did they say they was?” “Thespians” “That’s illegal in certain states”) to deliciously metafictive humour. One of the most subtle uses of this metafictive style occurs within the first few minutes, when Rango encounters an armadillo lovably named Roadkill (Alfred Molina) who has tried and failed numerous times to cross an empty road. When Rango asks why he doesn’t wait until there are no cars coming, Roadkill claims “it’s not so easy as it looks. It’s a metaphor”.
Gore Verbinski is, and probably will remain, most famous for his three Pirates of the Caribbean films. Considering the amount of special effects in those films, animation seems like a logical next step. I am not ashamed to say that I admired Verbinski’s direction in those movies, as he never took them too seriously and the action sequences had a nimbleness about them that would leave heavy-footed directors like Michael Bay gasping for breath. Verbinksi truly comes into his own in Rango, his first animated movie but hopefully not his last. Verbinski brings with him his characteristic quirkiness, unconventional comedy and dark, gritty visual style from live action, where it did feel quite brash and camp at times. However, his idiosyncratic sensibilities are right at home in the world of animation where, together with master cinematographer Roger Deakins, he paints the American West in both parched reality and the surreal beauty of nightmares and daydreams.
The voice casting is remarkable across the board, with Fisher, Nighy and Abigail Breslin in particular playing their roles with extreme gusto. However, the show is predictably stolen by Johnny Depp. Much like his character, Depp’s voice is truly chameleonic, ranging from ecstatic whoopings reminiscent of Kermit the Frog to menacing growls, behind which lurks the quiet, quavering stumbles of a person who isn’t confident in themselves. His work in Rango is one of my favourite vocal performances to date.
However, great direction and voice acting can be found in many an animated movie. What sets Rango apart is Verbinski’s trust in the audience to accept the film’s deep themes and surreal style. Trusting that an audience would accept the realism of a Western together with the psychedelic magic of a modern fairytale at the same time was a big ask, but did it pay off. What came as a result was one of the finest, most dream-like dream sequences I’ve seen so far and a haunting, mysterious poignant internal battle at the end of the second act that never fails to move me.
It was also a big ask to make a mainstream studio film based around the theme of identity. If one looks at the history of cinema, you could probably count the films with identity as a primary theme on two hands at most. How to know oneself is a problem common to us all, but is rarely dealt with as there is no universal solution to it. Verbinski had a hard time ahead of him making a family movie with the theme of identity, but never once did he dumb it down, and never once did he lose the audience. His approach to identity is simple but profound, and leaves the audience feeling more confident in their skin when they leave the theatre than they were before entering.
I’ve probably gone and made Rango sound like a thinkpiece. It is, but it is so much more. It’s a raucous comedy, Western, action-adventure and pop culture catalogue the likes of Quentin Tarantino would be happy to shop around in (one exhilarating chase sequence manages to successfully combine the movies Stagecoach, Star Wars and Apocalypse Now in a very original way). While the film does refer to pop culture, Verbinski never directly quotes from it, grounding the film and the audience deep within its own world.
With all these elements floating around, it’s remarkable that Rango didn’t turn into a massive episodic disaster. Under Verbinski’s sure hand, however, the various elements run together but never against each other, and although the various elements seem at odds, the film never feels inconsistent.
I put forward a challenge to you, the reader: I challenge you to say there was not one bit of Rango you didn’t thoroughly enjoy.
* * * * *
P.S. The only thing I felt this film could have improved on was by having the characters animated more expressively, but that is a personal preference as opposed to a genuine flaw