After bringing the character of Cap’n Jack Sparrow to the screen in the Pirates Of The Caribbean series, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp pair up again for Rango, an animated western about one chameleon’s search for identity.
Introduced by a band of mariachi owls, we first meet Rango (Depp), a bug-eyed (is there any other kind?) chameleon as he delivers an impassioned monologue about acting and loneliness, his only friends being a Barbie doll torso and a wind up fish toy. In reality, he’s a pet in the back of car soliloquising to himself when his glass terrarium shatters into sparkling smithereens after a narrowly avoided car crash.
Composing himself by the side of the highway, he’s advised to head into the desert by a passing armadillo. There, avoiding the attentions of hungry eagles and staving off heat exhaustion, he meets Beans (Isla Fisher), a lizard bemoaning the lack of water. Hitching a ride into her Old West town of Dirt, Rango attempts to blend in.
Ironically for a chameleon, this doesn’t come easily and he hastily invents some details about his life to impress the tough crowd of a local saloon. Through a combination of bravado and blind luck, he makes a favourable enough impression to be named the town’s sheriff – a post he quickly finds out has a short life expectancy.
It falls to Rango to investigate the town’s mysterious drought and he subsequently forms a posse and heads off into the desert to become the hero he’s made himself out to be.
Pixar have long been the kings of the animated heap (Toy Story 3’s double Oscar win at the weekend cemented what we already knew) but it looks like other studios are starting to pull their fingers out. Industrial Light and Magic’s first animated feature looks fantastic – textures are detailed, eyes are bright, light dapples surfaces believably; it’s a real feast for the eyes. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Dreamworks and Pixar start having to look over their pixelated shoulders in the near future.
But where the animation shines, the writing is less than flawless. The plot for the most part is predictable – no prizes for guessing the ending inside 20 minutes – but it’s populated with some decent characters, particularly Bill Nighy’s turn as the venom-dripping nemesis Rattlesnake Jake, sorely in need of some more screen time. Depp himself invests Rango with a bewildered eccentricity (a skill he’s refined over several recent film roles) and his comic timing is dead on. In a film packed with action sequences, Rango is actually very funny – a hilarious scene in which Rango sets fire to a bar patron is a perfectly executed.
There are a number of references to Depp’s previous work (particularly Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas), more than a few nods to Sergio Leone’s canon and sprinklings of other westerns but for the most part they slot naturally into the writing and don’t stand out like obvious signposts.
Rango attempts to straddle the line between adult and kids animation. Shrek achieved this masterfully – adults got a wry laugh at something that kids wouldn’t understand and children got a decent sight gag – but Rango’s adult jokes will be largely incomprehensible to a younger audience. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Rango’s existential musings in the third act, where the Spirit Of The West (a thinly veiled Clint Eastwood lookalike voiced impressively by Timothy Olyphant) appears to steer him on the right path, an unnecessary diversion from the meat of the story.
But importantly Rango doesn’t try to play it safe. This isn’t a by-the-numbers animation, but one that takes admirable risks with its presentation. It’s refreshing to see a studio attempting something new –this isn’t an animation built on the promise of a lucrative merchandising deal with Mattel – and while it doesn’t always succeed, it’s certainly worth the price of admission.