Certificate: PG
Running time: 107 mins
Director: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Western
Country: USA

Anyone wondering about Johnny Depp's artistic integrity having made four Pirates of the Carribean films and now becoming the latest name to lend voice and talents to an animated movie might want to hold both tongue and judgment until such time as they have watched the John Logan (The Aviator, Bond 23 and Steven Spielberg's forthcoming Lincoln) scripted Rango. 

A collision with a slow moving animal across a busy stretch of Nevada freeway dislodges aspiring thespian lizard Rango (Depp) from the rear of his owners car and out into the warm and uncertain world.

Rango starts, innocuously enough like a run of the mill animation film but is doesn’t take long to prove how truly different it is.  The animation is fantastic, looking back at recent animated films it’s easy to point fingers at offerings like Ice Age and Happy Feet  and yell “bad animation”.  Even at the time of release their CGI characters looked sadly dated, Rango doesn’t have this problem.  Whether it was Verbinski or Logan’s vision is unclear and it doesn’t really matter upon screening, the animation is wonderfully stylistic, deep, dark, mature and simply brilliant.  Whether it’s the attention to detail on Rango’s scales or the almost decaying nature of some of the supporting cast (Balthazar played by Harry Dean Stanton in particular) this is an animation style that is flawless and perfect like Pixar or Studio Ghibli but with the aged skepticism of a lavish next generation computer console horror game and the balance between the two is weighted to skillfully that it never tips in favour of one or the other without correcting itself.

The narrative of the film, like everything visually, is not what you would expect from an animated film.  So many of them are able simple stories.  Toys that need to find their owner, winning the big race, even the superhero adventure The Incredibles lacked the real detective element that you would want from a hero story but not Rango.  The storyline for Rango is two parts western, one part film noir with dashes of comedy to lighten the mood but always bringing a worthy laugh.  With echoes of everything from The Dollars Trilogy to Chinatown this is a film that can not simply be viewed, to get the most out of it you have to interact with the film and it’s complicated narrative.  There are deep routed issues of national identity and difficult questions about the “American way” and how far is too far in the pursuit of the (once) almighty dollar.  Logan’s scribing abilities have never been in question but what he showcases here isn’t just an ability to write well crafted dialogue or a convoluted narrative but is bravery.  The bravery to write a dark narrative for a genre that will, most likely, not welcome you to the park with open arms and will leave many parents frustrated that their little monsters got bored twenty minutes in…this decision is not only brave it is brilliant and will hopefully be showcased in the projects due out (with his penmanship) over the next year.

The score is excellently crafted, you would expect nothing less from Hans Zimmer, but his understanding of what you can do with instruments is second to none.  The score feels old like it belongs to the Sergio Leone / Enzo Castellari, part of the ancestry of spaghetti westerns which is so exciting (if you’re a fan of spaghetti westerns).

Depp is, as usual, scintillating, fascinating…all that ‘atings’.  Granted there are some similarities in the portrayal of Rango to that of Hunter S. Thompson and Captain Jack Sparrow but nobody does overly articulate yet completely scatter minded as well as Johnny Depp and even on his worst day he is still miles ahead of other performers such is his ability.  The ability to breath so much life into an animated character is something that simply doesn’t happen that often but yet within twenty minutes you feel like you understand Rango only for another layer of his personality to be peeled back to reveal even more to study.  It’s this caliber of acting that is needed for a film like Rango, which sets its stall out to be better than the usual offerings and it works.  The supporting cast are all wonderful, we get to see another side of Isla Fisher as she plays the emotionally stunted and slightly madcap Beans.  Abigail Breslin is also wonderful and no longer displays great acting “potential” that a lot of people like to attribute to younger performers but rather displays her great acting skill.  Ned Beatty (Mayor) is amazing, it’s been too long since audiences were able to cherish the wonderful ability of Beatty and in Rango he is nothing short of perfect.  Harry Dean Stanton is wonderful casting and a brilliant edition to a rich cast and would almost steal the second half of the film if it wasn’t for Bill Nighy.  Nighy (as Rattlesnake Jake) gives a mesmerizing performance that can only be described as Lee Van Cleef in reptile form.  You don’t even need to know spaghetti westerns or the work of Van Cleef to get this reference, so strong was Van Cleef’s presence, so accurate is Nighy’s rendering that it simply works on all levels.  Special praise to Timothy Olyphant who pops up as the “Spirit of the West” and gives a eerily perfect performance of a young Clint Eastwood playing an amalgamation of his western personas.

Final praise must go to Verbinski, he is clearly a massive western fan.  The level of detail layered on top of one another throughout this entire film wouldn’t be possible if the director simply had a passing interest in the genre.  The cinematography, colour palette and direction are all faultless and are what transforms Rango from a great animated film to a great film. 

If you intend on screening this to you children you will probably need to make sure that you have a Connect Four, Battleships or whatever children play with these days at arms reach as they will not follow this film.  This is not a slight on children but Rango is unlike any animated film coming out of Hollywood at the moment and is simply not what children have been raised to expect.  If you’re waiting for them to go to bed or are without the little darlings in your life then you’ll find yourself watching possibly the best western since Unforgiven  and will wonder why so few animated films are this darn good.


Dawniepants said...

Another very insightful review.

Dr. Algernon Blacksteed said...

Totally agree with you. Rango was a pleasant surprise. IT went right over my two year old's head, but I enjoyed every minute.

Dr. A B @ flightofthebmovie.blogspot.com

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