Review: Rango (2011)

Rango is a remarkable film and all the more remarkable because it’s unlike any other animated film out there. Its difference is not in quality, although it is far better than most animated films of recent years (even many of Pixar’s films), but in how it takes such a radical approach to animation. Rango is not a shabbily animated, derivative movie meant to cram as many pop-culture jokes and celebrity cameos as it can into one self-abasing, nonsensical plot with no relevance outside the pop-culture context it’s released in (like most of Dreamworks animated films). Instead, Rango is art. It is a unique, artistic vision of the existential crisis of a lonely chameleon that takes the form of a western that showcases an intimate knowledge of film history. The story is a combination of John Ford westerns and Chinatown, with a serious dollop of surrealist humour. It follows a chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp, a pet with a passion for acting (specifically Shakespeare as showcased in the bizarre and hilarious opening scene) and a serious identity crisis, who becomes the sheriff of the small desert town, Dirt, where the water has mysteriously disappeared. Director Gore Verbinski and writer John Logan wed the straightforward conventions of the western with a surreal (and occasionally metafictional) style, resulting in a story that’s both familiar and fresh. The film surprises in many respects, but it also gets where it needs to go and satisfies the conventions of the genre.

For content, Rango does have celebrity voices, pop-culture references, and quirky humour like other animated movies, but all of these serve the central vision of the film and are not the film’s sole purpose. The celebrities are unrecognizable in their voice-work. You’ll be surprised during the end credits to discover just which celebrities do voice-work here, and I won’t spoil the surprise by listing them. They inhabit their characters instead of their characters being mirrors of their real-life personalities, something very rare in animation nowadays.

The pop-culture references aren’t joke-of-the-week variety, making the obligatory reality TV jokes and nods to current social and political issues. Instead, the references are film references. As mentioned earlier, Rango owes a great debt to John Ford and Chinatown, but that’s not where its film connections end. It includes nods to Apocalypse Now and Star Wars among other iconic films, as well the only dream sequence in the past decade that lives up to Alfred Hitchcock’s work in Spellbound and Vertigo.

The film’s humour is quirky, but not because it’s trying to be clever and unexpected like the comedy in so many films nowadays. No, the humour is genuinely offbeat, even twisted in some respects. Some viewers will find it the funniest film of the year. Others will be seriously confused by the laughter permeating the theatre.

As well, Rango is simply gorgeous. It’s strange to compliment the cinematography of an animated film because animated films are usually shot so unimpressively, but Rango’s visuals are marvelous. Famed cinematographer Roger Deakins helped develop the distinct visual style (influenced by the films of Sergio Leone) so there’s no wonder the film looks so good. Some critics have commented on how repulsive they find the film's visuals to be, betraying an incorrect belief that the shot and the subject matter have to match each other in visual appeal. This belief ignores that you can have a beautiful photograph of something ugly; if a cinematographer can’t accomplish that, he or she is hardly a cinematographer. The characters of Rango are dirty and ugly, but the cinematography is crisp and beautiful.

Rango is something of a marvel. It may not reach the emotional heights of Toy Story 3 or match the unbridled imagination of Coraline, but it certainly belongs in the same conversation as them. It’s one of the rare examples of the modern animated film as art, as a cinematic statement of substance and beauty instead of mere populist entertainment. Some critics have said Rango is a good film, but hardly a good film for children. I disagree. Although I cannot predict how all children will react to the film, all I can say is that if I had seen Rango when I was ten, I would’ve probably found a new favourite film.

Rango (2011)

Directed by Gore Verbinski; written by John Logan; starring the voice talents of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, and Ned Beatty.

9 out of 10