There are very few animated films that star chameleons. There are even fewer that mix Western movie staples with a dash of Gonzo wit. “Rango,” the first animated film from Industrial Light and Magic, is that film. Perhaps the movie’s allusions to Hunter S. Thompson aren’t so surprising when you hear that Johnny Depp is the voice of the titular reptile, but when you try to put that in the context of a genre that is mostly marketed for children, well, things get harder to understand.
Rango is a chameleon who has spent most of his life in a tank, amusing himself by acting out bizarre dramas with the decorations, including a headless Barbie doll, a plastic fish and a synthetic palm tree. His owners are moving, and during a near-collison with a convertible, the tank is thrown out of the back of their car. It promptly shatters on the tarmac, leaving Rango on a very dry, very desolate desert highway.
From there, he encounters an armadillo that has almost been severed in half by a semi (this is surprisingly less disturbing than it sounds) who acts as a sort of shaman figure. He tells Rango to look for the town of Dirt, a town created in the classic Western style of saloons and stables, but populated by a number of decidedly un-classic characters. The town has been experiencing a drought for the past several months, and someone has just stolen their last store of water. From there, a ridiculous, surreal mystery is set in motion.
This movie is a hybrid of almost every genre you can think of ó Westerns, sci-fi, corruption drama, epic saga, romance, possibly drug-fueled art film. In spite of this completely incongruous categorical jumble, or perhaps because of it, the movie works. The plot is a clever twist on the lovable outsider theme, and the voice cast is immensely talented. It may not necessarily be the best thing to take the under 10-year-old demographic to, but it is a bizarrely brilliant addition to the animated world.
The actual animation is stunning ó† a fiercely detailed, grotesque and almost alien mix of creatures populate a post-apocalyptic ghost town. That being said, every inhabitant of Dirt is an animal you’ve probably seen before, with a slightly disconcerting twist There are rodents with fleshy, extended noses, desert owls with mustaches, and Beans (Isla Fisher), who can only be described as a sort of bulbous-eyed, snake-mouse hybrid with curls. And that’s the romantic lead.
But for all the outrageous and innovative images, there are a number of allusions to some of the most beloved characters in film. The Spirit of the West, a shadowy Messiah-like figure Rango encounters in a trippy mirage sequence, is remarkably similar to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name made famous in spaghetti Westerns like “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” The convertible that nearly hits Rango’s owners holds two men that are almost exact animated recreations of Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” While many modern animated films have little asides that only parents will catch, this is first I’ve seen that has given an overt nod to decidedly adult pop culture staples. The effect is disorienting, but then so is the whole movie, and I’m not complaining.
It may be unusual to think of Gore Verbinski in connection to a film that blatantly challenges most attempts at audience accessibility. But the “Pirates of the Caribbean” director pulls it off ó as shown in the film’s previews, he apparently had the actors act out most of their scenes live, interacting with the rest of the cast in a cartoonish set instead of being stuck in a soundbooth. The performances are dynamic, especially Depp’s, whose endearing Rango is full of goofy heart, vulnerability, and a surprising thespian streak. The other standout is Bill Nighy, a totally underrated British actor who is surprisingly frightening as Old West American gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake. Again, he’s not a villain necessarily appropriate for kids.
Rango is a movie that defies easy explanation, or easy reviewing. The only certainty I have is that it is hysterically, disconcertingly, gloriously weird. It’s not one to miss.