If there were any movie in recent years that I would recommend solely based on appearance, Rango would be it.
That’s the best thing it’s got going for it. Not to say that everything else is insufficient. It’s not. The look of the film is just so singular and unique, everything else pales in comparison. Rango is the movie equivalent of a drop-dead gorgeous woman: she’s just so irresistibly beautiful that no matter what she says, you’re overwhelmingly fascinated by the way she looks, making whatever comes out of her mouth entirely inconsequential.
Before we delve any deeper, though, let’s take a quick trip through some story synopsis, shall we? The movie begins as our hero, an anonymous lizard sporting a red shirt with a floral print, enthusiastically acts out scenes from Shakespeare and other entertainments from within his tank, his only company being a naked, headless Barbie doll, an orange wind-up fish toy, and a fake palm tree. We discover that the lizard’s glass house is sitting precariously on the back of a moving vehicle, and when an armadillo happens to try to cross the busy highway, cars swerve, causing the lizard’s world to literally come crashing to the ground. He finds himself lost in the desert where he catches the hungry eye of a steel-beaked hawk. In the act of evading its aggressor, the lizard stumbles into the small town of Dirt where, through an impressive display of improvisation, our hero dubs himself Rango, a Western gunslinger of (self-imposed) legendary status. Through dumb luck and heroic posturing, Rango soon finds himself to be named the lawman of Dirt and the various desert-animal inhabitants place all their hopes of surviving an impending drought on their new Sheriff’s narrow shoulders.
The movie often plays out like a checklist of Western trademarks, replete with shoot-outs, showdowns, high noons, white hats vs. black hats, the requisite scene where the stranger steps into the saloon and everybody inside immediately stops what they’re doing to stare at the out-of-towner (executed exquisitely in this case, might I add), and more. The fun comes from watching Rango, introduced to us as a lizard with an affinity for acting and knowledge of the arts, use his powers of performance to convince the critters of Dirt that he truly is the Western hero he claims to be by playing into these Western stereotypes. Even more entertaining is the way Johnny Depp, as the voice and model for Rango, throws himself into the performance and makes it clear that, as Rango is getting the others to buy into his heroism, he starts to become more confident and convincing in his new role, fooling not only the townsfolk, but ultimately himself, and, to some degree, the audience as well. Rango is truly a gifted actor, and it’s an amazing sight (and sound) to behold as Johnny Depp makes this transition so effortless and believable. I can, in all sincere honesty, say that, apart from his performance in Ed Wood, this is the highlight of Depp’s career. I know some people go gaga for his Captain Jack Sparrow, but I actually find him more convincing and entertaining here, as an eccentric lizard with questionable fashion sense.
Along with Depp’s fantastic performance, the animation and overall look of the film is truly what brings Rango to life. The breathtakingly barren landscapes typical of Westerns are in no short supply here, and the cinematography goes above and beyond that of the typical computer-animated fare. As a result, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to me to see that Roger Deakins is credited as visual consultant, the man behind the camera for pretty much every film by the Coen brothers and one of the most gorgeously shot movies I’ve ever seen, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Due credit should also go, of course, to director Gore Verbinski, who has proved to have a decent eye for visuals in the past, but really outdoes himself with this one. However, not only are the images beautifully composed, but the design of every single critter that makes up this world has been carefully considered and painstakingly rendered. The texture of the characters is really a sight to behold and every detail, even down to how each character individually moves, seems to have been meticulously crafted. Apart from the character of Rango, the black-hat-wearing outlaw gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake, who sports a minigun at the end of his tail, is one of the true character design wonders. Every time Rattlesnake Jake is on the screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him, and he moves precisely as you would expect a snake to move if it found itself in the middle of a classic Western showdown.
I can’t help but feel, though, that the visual flair of Rango might serve as a hindrance as well. As I mentioned before, the sheer originality and overall magnificence of the look of the film overshadows almost everything else. The only thing that comes close to competing for the audience’s attention is Johnny Depp’s performance. The story itself is adequate, but really nothing to rave about and there is a significant lack of heart and emotional punch the likes of which you encounter in pretty much everything Pixar releases. But really, who cares? Rango sure is pretty to look at, and if society has taught me anything, sometimes looks are really all you need to get by.