Rango (2011)

Rango first published by Film4

Summary: Gore Verbinski’s first fully animated feature is a fish-out-of-water pastiche of the spaghetti western – and twenty-first century living.  

Review: “Who am I?”, wonders a pet chameleon, surveying the world rushing past his glass case as he is transported along a Nevada freeway. “I could be anyone.” 

This lizard with thespian aspirations is voiced by that most chameleonic of actors, Johnny Depp, and shows a similar range. When we first meet him in his display box, he contemplates play-acting a scenario in which he is a ‘sea captain’ (like Depp’s Jack Sparrow) – and later he will have a desert vision modeled closely on Captain Jack’s hallucinatory underworld experiences in Gore Verbinski’s previous film, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007). Yet the chameleon also has the crazy eyes and Hawaiian shirt of Depp’s Hunter S. Thompson from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) – and will soon briefly come face-to-face (or at least face-to-windscreen) with the ‘real’ Thompson. “I knew it!”, Thompson will exclaim – after all, he was always seeing lizards in Terry Gilliam’s film. 


So while Rango may eventually target the spaghetti western as its genre of choice, and our herpetological hero-in-the-making may soon find himself ‘blending in’ as a vainglorious gun-slinger in the dried-out town of Dirt, there is the sense that any genre could fit, just so long as he is prepared for once to commit to seeing his story through to its end. Even a raid on a waggon in a canyon – a sequence that ought to be pure oater cliché – is played out by a menagerie of desert critters while somehow overtly referencing movies as generically wide-ranging as Apocalypse Now (1979), Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981).  In this cowboy flick, anything goes – and it tends to go fast, furious and funny.

The western may privilege Men with No Name, but ‘Rango’ himself, true to his film’s postmodern sensibilities, is a man with too many names (he is even “one of the few men to have a maiden name”) – and it is telling that when, near the end, he has a mystical encounter with the original Man With No Name, Clint Eastwood’s drawling figure (voiced by Timothy Olyphant) should not be riding a saddled horse, but rather a golf buggy festooned with his many Academy Awards. Here everything is an act, and Verbinski is happy to wear whatever shoe matches the performance – especially in the interests of raising a laugh.

Rango plays out like a full-length version of the surreal scene in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1973) where the Conquest of Mexico is reenacted on a scale model by costumed chameleons and toads. In their first animated feature, VFX house Industrial Light & Magic offer a photorealistic (yet highly mannered) microcosm of our own era, as ‘Rango’ stands off against the forces of property foreclosure, resource depletion and corrupt exploitation, and in so doing, lives up to his own myth – complete with a band of mariachi owls to sing with bleak relish of his evolutionary destiny (“the lizard – he’s going to die”). 

A fish out of water in a town out of water, our swivel-eyed protagonist will come to fit in precisely by improvising and adapting to his hostile new environment without ever sacrificing his peculiar idiosyncrasies. If he, like his film, is an incongruous amalgam of clashing types and conventions, always clad in artifice, then he is also a man (or at least a reptile) for our times, creating his own reality from the flotsam and jetsam of culture. 

“We each see what we want to see,” as the accident-prone armadillo Roadkill (Alfred Molina) puts it. “Beautiful isn’t it?” It is – and thigh-slappingly hilarious to boot, as state-of-the-art animation collides with postmodern pastiche on a busy road along which wayside legend will always count for more than supposed progress. 

VerdictRango is riotously funny, quirkily beautiful, and smart as a whip – although perhaps, despite all the animated animal antics, its anything-goes ironies will be best appreciated by an older audience.  

© Anton Bitel