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The dusty cards of the Old West are reshuffled into a winning hand in Rango, a madly clever animated sagebrush saga with style and wit to burn. Reconfiguring the spaghetti Western into a fusilli con camaleonte, Gore Verbinski’s surprising escape picture after years in the Caribbean is eye-poppingly visualized in a hyper-realistic style that at times borders on the surrealist. The verbal flights of fancy will often sail right over the heads of rugrats, as will the innumerable references to and twists on classic movies, making this one animated feature some adults might enjoy more than their kids. But the presence of Johnny Depp in the title role virtually assures muscular returns for this Paramount/Nickelodeon production.
Rango has the feel of a lark, of a film-lover’s spree in a playpen equipped with some of the world’s most expensive and expressive toys. Verbinski also enjoys the advantage of some highly gifted playmates, including technical wizards at Industrial Light + Magic (working on the firm’s first animated feature), some of his Pirates effects cohorts and visual consultant Roger Deakins, who helps make the picture look as much shot as animated.
Unquestionably the first kids’ toon to feature a homage to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas within the first 10 minutes, Rango pivots on the pilgrim’s progress of a mild-mannered pet chameleon who finds greatness thrust upon him when he pretends to a past of accomplished gunslinging in the name of justice. In the process, he becomes sheriff of the dried-up desert town of Dirt, which is presided over by a fat, old tortoise who controls the ragged community’s water supply, a situation that neatly allows the film to accommodate a child-friendly ecological theme while, for buffs, also summoning strong memories of Chinatown.
That Rango has something different in mind from the general run of animated features is clear in the preliminary philosophical banter between Rango (Depp), a bulging-eyed chameleon who’s normally blue, and a Don Quixote-like armadillo (Alfred Molina) whose midsection has been flattened by a truck’s wheel. The compositions, especially in this stretch, are imaginatively bizarre, as are Rango’s free-associative musings, some of which go by so fast that it’s hard to take them all in.
Ushered on his way through the arid landscapes by a mordant mariachi owl band, Rango encounters female lizard Beans (Isla Fisher), with whom he stumbles upon the aptly named town of Dirt, which is occupied by a wide range of vividly realized critters who share one thing in common: They’re all thirsty and can’t hold out much longer without water. The wheelchair-bound, seemingly genial old tortoise mayor, who is voiced by Ned Beatty and looks like him too, promises everyone that good times lie ahead and attempts to co-opt Rango, who furthers his invented legend by killing a giant, metal-beaked hawk, by appointing him sheriff.
While some distracting sideline villainy triggers some busy chases and battles, the real bad guy is the mayor, who has been hoarding water in preparation for the day when he will have bought up all the surrounding land for cheap. His henchman is the giant Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), memorably equipped with a rapid-fire Gatling gun where his rattle normally would be. But before Rango faces his high noon with the serpent, he has an inspiring encounter with an iconic character called the Spirit of the West who bears an uncanny resemblance to an aged Man With No Name.
When filmmakers who have never before worked in animation jump into the deep end, the result could range from the freshly innovative to the downright clueless. In this case, it’s happily the former that prevails. Screenwriter John Logan, working from a story cooked up with Verbinski and the latter’s longtime illustrator and conceptual consultant James Ward Byrkit, stirs the pot of genre archetypes, conventions and cliches with a sharp eye for their amusing reusability while also writing flavorsome character dialogue.
For his part, the director has broken with convention by recording the vocal performances, not separately in the isolation of studio booths but with the actors working together on a prop-laden and partly dressed stage for 23 days, during which time their work was shot by HD cameras so that animators could later reference their facial expressions and bodily gestures for inspiration. There is evidence of this working more with some actors — particularly Depp and Beatty — than others, but the verbal exchanges do spark and flow in the manner of accomplished ensemble work; in the promotional materials, the filmmakers call the technique “emotion capture,” as opposed to motion capture.
But most exceptional is the visual style, which makes even the best animated 3D look like a poor cousin. More than in any other animated work that comes to mind, meticulous attention has been paid to light and shadow, to gradations of color, to details of faces, costumes and props and to the framing of shots. Some of this is deliberately meant to ape the density of the compositions in certain classic Westerns and, even more, to those of Italian master Sergio Leone. Beyond this, it’s arresting to behold the twists the filmmakers add, such as creating a Monument Valley-like backdrop but deliberately changing its color from reddish to a sandy yellow or reducing the town in spots to what could be called its skeleton.
Such imaginative leaps are perpetuated by Hans Zimmer’s score, which reworks the sound of Ennio Morricone’s celebrated scores for Leone in ways that are exciting, sometimes comic but never silly.
A few off-color dialogue exchanges are mildly surprising for a family-friendly, PG-rated film, and dropping an additional five minutes or so would have tightened the screws to its benefit.
Release date: Friday, March 4 (Paramount)
Production: Nickelodeon, Blind Wink, GK Film
Voice cast: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, Timothy Olyphant, Stephen Root, Ned Beatty, Claudia Black, Ian Abercrombie, Gil Birmingham
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenwriter: John Logan, based on a story by Logan, Gore Verbinski, James Ward Byrkit
Producers: Gore Verbinski, Graham King, John B. Carls
Executive producer: Tim Headington
Production designer: Mark “Crash” McCreery
Visual effects supervisors: Tim Alexander, John Knoll
Animation supervisor: Hal Hickel
Visual consultant: Roger Deakins
Editor: Craig Wood
Music: Hans Zimmer
PG rating, 107 minutes
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