Michael Moran has been to see Rango for Bleeding Cool:
There’s probably a pitch that sounds like this every day, somewhere in Hollywood. CGI-rendered anthropomorphic misfit character bumbles through 90 minutes of sight-gags, gains redemption and expounds a simple moral for the kids while juggling a fistful of pop-culture references to keep their adult carers entertained.
With a less imaginative director and star it would be a computer-animated rerun of The Paleface – no bad thing, one might think, but hardly worthy of our attention.
So what, exactly, attracted twitchy, chameleonic actor Johnny Depp to the character of twitchy chameleon would-be actor Rango?
All signs at the outset point to this property having started life as a peyote-fuelled brainstorming session after a tough day on the Pirates Of The Caribbean set. The film’s rammed with cineaste references and in-jokes that let you know from the first frame that you’re watching a film made by people who know the classics.
That’s hardly unusual these days, but Rango treats you to something a little hipper than the usual ‘spray and pray’ burst of classic TV skits and 80s movie nods.
In Rango, the fourth wall is something to be breathed on so that the characters can draw metatextual frames around themselves in the condensation. It’s notionally a western, so it’s no surprise that the title character is a Man (or more accurately Chameleon) With No Name. He picks his nom de voyage seemingly at random about 20 minutes in. It’s more of a surprise that he briefly meets Hunter S Thompson in the opening scene, but then this is a Johnny Depp flick we’re talking about.
Again, it’s no great shock that there’s a mariachi band of owls who provide a Greek Chorus to the film that’s reminiscent of Cat Ballou. However the presence of an armadillo who is channelling the spirit of Don Quixote is perhaps a little less predictable in a CGI creature feature. But then, it’s Johnny Depp again…
All this tricksiness might lead you to fear that Rango is a self-regarding exercise that lacks heart. Measured against Pixar masterpieces such as Up or Toy Story that’s probably a fair criticism. There are dozens of solid gags that will draw a genuine laugh from the toughest audience but there’s none of that emotional weight that Pixar so effortlessly tap into.
Some may perceive the fact that the youngsters who see this film won’t spend half the movie sobbing silently into their popcorn as a good thing. Parents can take their offspring to Rango confident that there will be no sudden need for a hastily-found tissue to mop tear-stained faces and they can just relax for an hour or two saying quietly to themselves “That bit’s The Grapes Of Wrath” and “this dream sequence reminds me of Spellbound”.
Despite its Wild West theme the overarching influence on Rango is not (despite one superb little sequence that cheekily evokes Wayne Campbell’s meeting with Jim Morrison) The Man With No Name.
Rango is at its cold-blooded lizard heart Chinatown for kids. Ned Beatty is a terrific villain and Depp’s character is the bumbling lawman who more by luck than judgement routs his land-grabbing scheme.
Apart from Depp’s chameleon and Beatty’s tortoise, most of the other characters are rather flat. The townspeople are a motley assortment of Mojave desert critters but without intimate knowledge of native desert species concerned they all look a bit like Ewoks.
Isla Fisher’s leading lady lizard is given a strange narcoleptic tic to help shape her character but it doesn’t particularly plug into the story and feels a bit bolted on.
One aspect of the film that does really shine though is the music: Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack starts out as keenly observed classic western theme and ends up shading into a pastiche of Dick Dale’s Misirlou – appropriately reminding us of that arch cinematic magpie, Quentin Tarantino.
It’s funny, it sounds great, it looks absolutely beautiful and almost uniquely it’s not in 3D. Up against the best of Pixar this film’s a little cold, but compared to any other kiddie-slanted animation blossoming from the chill minds of a Silicon Graphics workstation this decade, Rango’s a masterpiece.