To hear Rango described on paper, you'd wonder how it managed to glean such an enjoyable experience from the sum of its parts. I say this because, as far as much of the basic scenario goes, we’ve seen this before. A stranger wanders into a troubled old western town, performs feats to make himself popular, and finally saves the town from a greedy villain’s conspiracy. That’s right; Rango is a deep-dyed Western; sure, it’s the only Western about a chameleon played by Johnny Depp, but the vast majority of tropes are all things we’ve already seen in other movies, and much of it remains predictable for that reason. So how is it that this movie, which should logically feel stale, comes out feeling fresher than most other animated family films released in recent memory? Perhaps it’s because it applies so much elbow-grease to a clichéd formula that it makes it enjoyable again, perhaps it’s because we’ve had such a break from the genre that it feels new again compared to what have come to be the mainstays of animated films these days, perhaps the little things, like the film’s animal cast, really do count for a lot, and it may be a combination of these—but whatever the case, it’s like no other animated film, and an absolute blast to watch.
Compared to most animated films, Rango does not spend much time setting up its storyline before it happens on the screen; before we even know the antihero of the film well, he is being hurled out of a car, dodging traffic and predators, and strolling into a saloon within minutes of his first appearance. At first it feels like a weak narrative, but given time and attention, it reveals that it’s just an energetic one. This film doesn’t tell us much because it would rather show us, and it shows things rather expertly. Through a stable blend of harrowing, high-velocity action scenes and jokes that are often side-splittingly hilarious, Rango actively makes the audience feel like they’re along for the ride. In addition, it helps that the film looks and sounds great.
Visually-speaking, the best single word to describe Rango is “unique.” This is not a film that feels compelled by the mainstays of modern animation; while other animated movies tend to produce a world filled with exaggerated, glossy pastel colors and exaggerated, proportionally-stylized characters, both of which call constant attention back to the notion that they’re just long cartoons, Rango seeks an alternative in a worn, sober world that is essentially beautiful in an ugly way. With the possible exception of a quartet of cute mariachi owls who provide the film’s soundtrack (and occasionally some snide commentary), there isn’t a single pretty face anywhere in this movie; many characters look like actual desert animals, and all have a hardened and/or battered look to them. This is a motley-looking crew, with faded clothes, unkempt facial hair, wrinkles and scrapes, bloodshot eyes, and a myriad of other features that indicate a life in the badlands full of sorrow—one character even has an arrow lodged in his skull via one of his eyes! The presentation of the harsh environment that forged them is equally well-realized, with its bone-dry deserts, decaying remains of the unfortunate, and its red, silhouette-casting sunsets. The point is that this film doesn’t whitewash its grit; it displays it proudly and thus immerses viewers. The town of Dirt deserves special attention, as in addition to having the same worn-out look that the rest of the movie features, much of it is constructed of repurposed human objects, providing lots of fun details to look for in its appearance, in the vein of such classics as The Rescuers. One more thing about the visuals: Roger Ebert has observed that this movie, despite not being optimized for 3-D graphics, looks better than many that are. For my part, I’m somewhat disappointed this film wasn’t in 3-D, as there are plenty of scenes that could have made great use of it, but Ebert is still basically right; it already does look much better than many other CGI films.
Sound is another strong point. The aforementioned owl chorus provides a well-produced, appropriate-sounding score of country and mariachi music to set the mood, and I advise everyone to stay for the end credits, where they really let loose with a spectacular fanfare. However, what will draw many to this movie is the voice-acting. Johnny Depp does a great job as Rango, hitting all the subtle-yet-important details of his character’s mood, and providing a distinction between the early scenes where he’s just a self-important humbug and the final scenes where he comes to take the role of hero seriously. However, though Depp’s performance is excellent and often compelling, he sometimes sounds like a typical, likeable-yet-naïve CGI protagonist, a bit of a letdown for an actor as distinctive as Johnny Depp. However, the rest of the cast sound straight out of a classic Western, with all the accents and dialects you’d expect, and even a lot of mild expletives. Here too, this film wears its grit on its shoulder, with spectacular results.
In closing, let me reiterate that Rango is a unique movie. Opinions are going to vary as to how much a cast of animals makes the old feel new again, but I certainly can’t say I have seen a lot of animated Westerns, and this film does capitalize on its unique cast to put an occasional twist on the old mechanics; such as in the case of a chase scene where, in lieu of a train being attacked and boarded from horseback, a javelina-drawn wagon is boarded by raiders riding on bats. (Also admit it; did you have to look up what a javelina was?) Taking its inspiration from the American epics of yesteryear also means this film hardly ever draws on contemporary pop culture for its humor, which is another way it sets itself apart from the crowd. In the end, Rango feels less like a mess of clichés and more like an affectionate tribute to Westerns, and it’s a roaring-good time, to boot.