A chameleon that aspires to be a swashbuckling hero finds himself in a Western town plagued by bandits and is forced to literally play the role in order to protect it.
“It’s a paradigm shift!” shouts a grey bearded little mouse named Spoons in the middle of Rango. Not the most typical of phrases to spurt from the mouth of a cartoon mouse, but it’s actually quite a useful sentiment to use in describing this strange, but very fun little film.
Gore Verbinksi has moved from the classic genre of the Pirate to another classic: the western. Well sort of. Not content with creating a similarly fun live action western the likes of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, he has branched out into the world of animation. And animal animation at that. The result is a surreal world of shoot ‘em up turtles, moles and lizards with sweeping spaghetti western soundtracks sung by mariachi owls.
From the off we are told our hero, an aspiring performer, a Hawaiian shirt wearing pet chameleon called Lars (Depp), shall come to a sticky end. He gets himself lost in the desert, sticking out like a sore thumb for any passing eagle to snatch up, before catching a ride from the feisty southern jezebel Beans (Fisher) to the nearest Hicksville known as Dirt Town. Completely out of his element he must live out the hero lifestyle he so wishes he had in order to fit in (but he’s a chameleon! Get it?). He changes his name to Rango, gathers a name for himself as a rough and ready criminal killer and is soon appointed Sheriff.
The basic plot outline is one we’ve seen many times before. A guy pretends to be someone else, gets in there with a girl, is eventually found out and thus must save the day and gain back the respect of all those he betrayed. There’s something to do with a water shortage in the town, and a band of robbers attempting to steal it. There’s also a dubious authority figure in town, a turtle (technically it must be a tortoise, no?) somewhat familiar to Lotso from Toy Story 3 and also played by Ned Beatty, that has a more sinister plan for the town and its inhabitants. It’s safe to say the plot leaves a little to be desired.
The joy of the film comes instead from the sheer silliness of its characters and the way it straddles the kid/grown-up divide more playfully than most other animations. The animals of Dirt are a disgusting bunch of misfits who discuss finding human spines in their faecal matter. They exclaim about recent paradigm shifts and don’t bat an eyelid when someone actually dies. In this sense Verbinksi has pushed the limits a bit more on dropping adult humour into a film aimed primarily at kids. Interestingly, the actors shot the film in chronological order, choosing to actually act out the scenes together, minimising any sound booth work. It adds a little kick to the characters performances that circle around Depp’s trade mark lunacy which mixes a little of Jack Sparrow with Fear and Loathing’s Raoul duke.
And for all the western aficionados out there, it is riddled with references, owing much to Verbinksi’s adolescence bought up on Sergio Leone and John Ford. Potentially the film’s best moment also sees a strange existential encounter with Clint Eastwood, leaving one to wonder whether Depp bought along a little more of his Fear and Loathing experiences to the film.
It’s ultimately an underdog in animation, as is any non-Pixar film these days, but will garner some audiences for Depp and possibly Gore Verbinkski having a go at animation. It’s also worth a look-see for Hans Zimmer belting out spaghetti soundscapes. Despite its rather empty plot, those with an appreciation of silly, dark humour, fantastic animation and sprawling Western references, will have plenty to enjoy in Rango. It’s had a lot of fun with the genres it’s used. Did I mention it’s a paradigm shift?