Rango starts with a witty little setup; a chameleon (Johnny Depp) living as a pet in a glass tank, immersed in a world of make-believe largely of his own doing--as host and impresario to his own endless talk show complete with busty beauty (a headless Barbie doll), dependable comic sidekick (a windup plastic fish) and guest (a dead cricket). The tiny rectangular world looks startlingly like a parody of the standard-issue digital animated feature: brightly colored sets, plasticized props, a sense of crude airlessness and artificiality complete with pop-culture references to entertain the adults accompanying their children (cough cough--Dreamworks--cough--Pixar--cough cough cough). Then the tank bounces out the station wagon's rear window to smash on the sunbaked asphalt, and suddenly we're in the middle of the Arizona desert. No, not Oz, not quite--but not Kansas, either.
Suddenly boundaries are shattered. This is digital animation not quite like what you've seen before, where cacti stoop over cracked clay, salt flats glow an unearthly pearl white, and desert dunes trail a veil of dust (they resemble a group of friends suffering collective dandruff). Verbinski, who in his previous movies (the Pirates of the Caribbean pictures, the Ringu remake) strove mightily--sometimes too mightily--to be visually distinctive achieves the real thing here, in the carefully rendered textures of dried grass, splintered wood, and wind-weathered rock (it probably helped that cinematographer Roger Deakins--who shot the Coen brothers' westerns No Country for Old Men and True Grit--acted as consultant). Almost for the organic detailing alone the movie is worth seeing, as an example of what digital is capable of nowadays (as opposed to the antiseptic look inside the terrarium).
The plot is the hoariest imaginable: a rancher's daughter (Isla Fisher) is in danger of losing her property due to lack of water when the chameleon strides in, adopts the name Rango, and with the blessings of mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty) takes on the role of sheriff. Rango's first official act is to lead a posse after the gang of moles that have carried off the town's entire water supply (a massive five-gallon plastic jug). From classic melodrama cliches (a rancher's daughter in trouble; a new sheriff and his posse; a gang committing a daring robbery) the movie without batting an eye two-steps into Chinatown territory, throwing water hoarding and a land development scheme into the mix for good measure.
Rango and his posse manage to steal back the water jug, now mounted as a covered wagon, only to be chased by the robber gang in a delirious mishmash of Apocalypse Now, Star Wars, Stagecoach and The Road Warrior, complete with the latter picture's ironic punchline. The rest of the movie falls back on the Chinatown plot, to the tune of composer Hans Zimmer's Ennio Morricone-inspired spaghetti western music.
So far so ho-hum. But there's a genuine streak of dementia here starting with Rango himself, who seems not so much liberated as unleashed by his glass-tank birth, his developmental growth finished off by a long walk through steak-broiling heat so when he finally walks into a saloon (Western cliche-speak for "asking for trouble") he faces down a mangy bunch of hecklers by whipping up a story where he killed seven desperate criminal brothers with a single bullet (did I mention elements of the Brothers Grimm?). Rango starts out as an unrealized character--as pet chameleon he didn't even have a name--but as lonely wanderer on the verge of becoming legend he seizes on a classic maxim of the Wild West (you're only as impressive as your press releases), and pumps his do-it-yourself identity to larger-than-life-size by channeling the spirit of Mark Twain, easily the greatest tall-tale-spinner of them all (at one point Rango claims to be brother to the monstrous Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), and explains the relationship thusly: "my mother had an active social life"). Perhaps not the most original character ever created but God is in the details, and there's something about these particular details, plonked down in this setting (American being the land of the self-made (and self-promoting); the West being the source of many a tall tale; the very desert giving rise to endless mirages and illusions) that somehow helps sell his character as something fairly fresh and persuasive, if not actually compelling.
Never liked Verbinski; thought his Ringu remake was a cloddish version of Hideo Nakata's subtle original, thought the success of his Pirates of the Caribbean pictures was largely due to Johnny Depp's inspired improvisations, but for some strange, bizarre reason--perhaps the strangest and most bizarre in this strange, bizarre film--he's spot on in this production, his frenetic cartoonish moviemaking the perfect pace and tone for telling this particular story. Rango wields a humor at the same time cruder ("I found a spinal column in my fecal matter once") and more sophisticated ("you should have that looked at")--more unmistakably, refreshingly, exuberantly adult--than Pixar would ever dare allow to sully their kid-friendly movies. Kudos to Verbinski then, for making the best animated feature of the year to date, an inspiredly chaotic breakout from the limited terrarium of American digital animation.
First published in Businessworld, 3.10.11