The allure of animated films is undeniable. With artwork and movement traversing the uncanny valley with ease, animated films open up a whole new world of storytelling techniques for filmmakers. Shots that are impossible to do practically are suddenly made achievable. Stunts too dangerous for live actors are no issue when cartoon characters can survive anything. Finally, an animated avatar seems to be just enough to alleviate actors from the burdens of their egos and insecurities and allow them to simply turn in the needed performance. In Rango, all of these advantages are used to their full extent. The animation and voice talent are on par with the very best the genre has to offer. Regrettably, the infinite possibilities of animation seemed too tempting to the filmmakers and the creative vision suffers a bit for it.
Johnny Depp voices a chameleon with aspirations of being an actor. Unfortunately, trapped in his small glass case with nothing but a Barbie doll torso, a wind-up fish and a plastic tree, his prospects of playing a major role are slim. That all changes when his case shatters on the road, leaving him to wander the desert until he finds the Old West town of Dirt, where he’s able to reinvent himself as Rango – a stone killer. When he meets a fellow lizard named Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher), she explains the reason for the sorry state of the town, which is a water shortage. Rango visits the mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty) to see if he can help and the mayor swears Rango in as the new sheriff. Unfortunately, Rango soon discovers that there’s a very big difference between playing a hero and being one when truly heinous bad guys come to town, looking for blood.
Rango looks absolutely stunning. Audiences will marvel at the spot-on animation and wonderful lifelike details that etch reality into the characters and environment. Watching Rango and all of the other characters move around the screen is a jaw-dropping experience and each character almost pops out of the movie. The cinematography will also be devoured by the eyes. One inspired shot happens early on when Rango’s lizard tank goes hurtling out of the car his owners are transporting him in. The scene is beautiful chaos as Rango’s world is literally turned upside down and inside out.
There’s plenty of room for creative license when the characters in the film are made up of sundry desert critters, like rabbits, moles, lizards, snakes and tortoises. Unfortunately, the creativity is a bit uneven. First, the town of Dirt has an Old West theme where everyone rides an animal-drawn cart of some kind and talks with a drawl. Yet they also seem to be aware of human beings and the modern world, which makes their living in the Old West seem arbitrary. Secondly, there are clever touches that show the smart interplay of the creature world with the human world, like a human-sized mailbox serving presumably as the town post office. Yet, the creatures also inexplicably have creature-sized guns, clothes and other items. The sizes of the characters are also at odds. A lizard is the same size as a rabbit who is the same size as a spider who is the same size as a fox. Typically, proportions wouldn’t matter in a cartoon, but since the film establishes early that this creature world exists within the real human world, then real creature sizes are expected. These questions and more won’t ruin the film – especially for younger audiences – but they are distracting.
The voice talent, however, is superb in every aspect. Johnny Depp showcases his range and delivers a performance that’s just nerdy and vulnerable enough to speak to everyone watching, while having strong enough character to keep audiences rooting for him. The rest of the cast is brimming with celebrity voices and everyone turns in wonderful performances aided with pitch-perfect animation. Isla Fisher and Bill Nighy (as Rattlesnake Jake) transform their voices so much that they’re barely recognizable. Other notable voices are Alfred Molina, Abigail Breslin and Timothy Olyphant. Everyone pulls more than their weight and truly makes the most of their respective scenes.
The target audience will no doubt love Rango, but the film doesn’t quite tap into a universal emotion that bridges all age groups. While the film does give older audiences a few treats, like adult jokes, a Clint Eastwood reference and a political message that marries currency with mindless religion, this film is mainly for the kids and they will simply have a good time.
Despite some questionable elements, Rango is a solid choice for the entire family. It’s beautiful to behold, the characters are quirky and fun, and the overall message of the film is something every family can get behind. It won’t be the most memorable animated film anyone has seen, but Rango is still worthy distraction.