I personally feel that any discussion of Rango must begin with the visuals. Not only does the film have beautifully vivid animation and art direction that’s spectacularly detailed in its grit, but our beastly characters are designed with just the right amount of human-like traits. Even more impressive is that these visuals weren’t crafted by Pixar or Dreamworks, but by none other than Industrial Light and Magic. The film’s sterling camera set-ups also benefited from direct consultation by that cinematography legend and honorary Coen Brother, Roger fucking Deakins. Under the direction of Gore Verbinski — here making his animation debut — all of these formidable cinematic talents combine with a star-studded voice cast of actors (Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Ned Beatty, Timothy Olyphant, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root in three roles, Harry Dean Stanton, etc.), all at the top of their game, to make an animated film with live-action style. This presentation really is remarkable in how it brings together the best of both worlds.
Such a pity that it was all in the service of a screenplay by the overrated John Logan. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At the start of the movie, we meet a cowardly and hapless chameleon who’s eager to be an entertainer, crafting shows and characters out of whatever’s lying around in his tank. Yes, our hero is actually a pet, right up until a freak near-accident throws him out of his owners’ car, stranding him in the Mojave Desert. He eventually stumbles into the town of Dirt, discovering that the inhabitants are suffering a very crippling drought. Inspired by the locals’ need for a hero — not to mention their hostility toward strangers — the chameleon improvises a new character for himself: A roving gun-for-hire named “Rango.”
First of all, this is a western movie in which the inhabitants of a town are suffering for lack of a vital resource. Secondly, our main character is compulsively dishonest, rallying the townsfolk around him on a pack of lies. Any film-literate person should be able to guess the entire plot of the movie just from those two facts. However, the movie does feature a stagecoach chase from a fleet of gun-wielding moles flying on bats while “Flight of the Valkyries” is played on banjo and harmonica, so I suppose the proceedings aren’t entirely predictable.
What really sets this movie apart is its humor. Or rather, it’s approach toward humor. There are a number of self-referential jokes and little winks toward the fourth wall, though these aren’t nearly frequent enough. Sometimes they’re effectively used, such as Hunter S. Thompson’s cameo near the start of the film. Conversely, there’s a very crucial time when The Man With No Name appears (yes, that one), but it doesn’t make sense and the reference falls totally flat. There are a few other kinds of jokes, none of which are overly offensive and/or stupid, but all of them vary wildly in quality.
Additional comic relief is provided by a mariachi band of owls, whose success rate is split right down the middle. For half of their screen time, the owls are breaking the fourth wall to provide narration, jokes and music. During the other half, these owls are foreshadowing Rango’s imminent death. While the band is very effective for the former purpose, the latter is made totally pointless by the fact that Rango does, in fact, survive. And the mariachis offer no apology or explanation for why they led the audience on, leaving half of their screen time completely redundant. STUPID.
Also, there’s one visual gag that I’d like to address: The Eye. About a third of the way in, our characters are walking in an underground cavern when they pass a gigantic eyeball that has to be at least two stories tall. It’s never explained what the eyeball is, the eye itself does absolutely nothing and it plays no role at any subsequent point in the film, so what the hell?!
Considering how much talent, creativity and effort clearly went into Rango, I find it frustrating that the film is so deeply flawed. If only this screenplay had been handed over to someone who could more effectively utilize humor — particularly the self-aware kind seen here — this might have been something truly great. As it is, the predictable story and dazzling visual presentation balance out to a mediocre film.
Still, that’s far more than I can say about some other kids’ films.