With Rango, his first completely animated feature film, co-writer/director Gore Verbinski returns to the anarchic spirit of his movie debut Mousehunt as he follows the existential quest of hapless hero Lars, a chameleon voiced by the ever quixotic Johnny Depp.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the suitably of the film for younger children, it has been rated PG and I think that speaks for itself. If it had wished to be marketed specifically for family audiences it would have strived for a U certificate like the Pixar and Dreamworks movies it’s being unduly compared to.
Rango actually marks the foray of the George Lucas foundered special effects company Industrial Light & Magic into feature length animation; working under the guidance of the Coen Brothers regular cinematographer Roger Deakins they have crafted quite simply one of the most detailed, breathtaking and genuinely beautiful CGI pictures seen to date.
When we meet Lars he is stuck in a hermetically sealed world of his own imagining; an aspiring actor with an identity crisis, confined to a tiny terrarium he improvises scenes of would-be heroics, bouncing lofty dialogue off his inanimate inmates, a clockwork toy fish, a dead insect and a headless Barbie doll.
As Lars has the sudden realisation that the reason his life lacks definition is due to the absence of any real conflict his world is launched into space as the camera pulls back to reveal it’s being carried by a car hurtling at high speed along the freeway which has been sent into a tailspin after hitting an armadillo attempting to cross to the other side.
Despite having a deep tyre tread across his thorax the armadillo (Alfred Molina) doesn’t seem at all fazed by the accident as if it’s a regular occurrence; his metaphysical musings set Lars on a journey far off the beaten path, across the wasteland to the desolate town of Dirt where he shall glean self-knowledge and meet the ‘Spirit of the West’.
Before setting off on his epic quest the film doesn’t miss an opportunity to have Lars nearly run off the road by Johnny Depp’s character from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the delusional paranoiac, Raoul Duke the first in a litany of iconic cinematic references that raise the movie above and beyond the expectations of mainstream entertainment.
On the outskirts of Dirt, Lars meets the outlandishly named Beans (Isla Fisher), the daughter of a recently deceased prospector, who suspects foul play is the cause of the town’s diminishing water rations. Much is made of the fact that Lars struggles with the physiognomic changes you’d typically expect from a chameleon, this serves as a metaphor for his personality disorder which manifests itself in his efforts to constantly re-invent himself as a heroic figure.
During an extended improvisation the lizard takes on the persona of a fearless gunslinger in order to impress a local bar room crowd, he brags about killing the notorious Jenkins Brothers – all seven of them – with one bullet! Taking the name of ‘Rango’ from a bottle labelled ‘Made in Durango’ his exalted reputation is confirmed accidently when he takes out a menacing hawk by chance; the townsfolk of Dirt are so in need of something to believe in that they appoint him as the new Sheriff.
Rango is a post-modernist comedy co-written by John Logan (Sweeney Todd) which manages to pay homage to every great Western from the Gary Cooper classic High Noon to the ‘Spaghetti’ variety of Sergio Leone; not content with celebrating cinematic cowboys it also borrows the Valkyrie sequence from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and a mysterious watery plot direct from Polanski’s Chinatown with the malfeasant Mayor of Dirt (Ned Beatty) being a dead ringer for John Huston.
It’s worth mentioning the quartet of Mariachi owls who also act as a chorus in the classical Greek sense whilst serenading the audience with amusing little ditties proclaiming the hero’s imminent death. Rango sticks to its six shooters and brings the whole metafictional tale full circle with Lars finally arriving on the other side of the freeway to find the ‘Spirit of the West’ embodied by Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (Timothy Olyphant) from whom he learns that attaining self-knowledge is the ultimate heroic act and that we are all the stars of our own stories.
Despite being every bit as odd as it sounds the film is consistently entertaining and easily held my son’s attention without him needing to be au fait with the many in-jokes or countless movie references. Rango was obviously conceived as a star vehicle for Depp’s quirkier sensibilities by Pirates of the Caribbean director Verbinski and the pair are clearly relishing the refreshingly surreal sabbatical and have crafted a landmark work of startling originality in the process.