I didn’t get into the Western genre until I was in my twenties. I’d seen several here and there, and I liked them, but as a genre it didn’t click for me until I was old enough to appreciate them. It’s not like my parents who were raised on it, who saw every John Wayne or Clint Eastwood that opened. When I was a child, it was all about STAR WARS. Who could watch those old movies, with their horses, and their guns, when STAR WARS had spaceships and lightsabers and laser rifles? STAR WARS took many of the Western standards, twisted them a bit, and for a whole generation, many of us never looked back. That’s unfortunate, because it means that as a generation we practically killed the genre. Oh, we get the occasional prestige release. But now we get maybe one or two authentic Westerns a year.
What’s all of this have to do with RANGO, you might ask? Well, if you didn’t know by now, RANGO’s a Western. And as Westerns go, it’s a damned good one. Our story is narrated by singing owls, letting us know that the hero of this story is already doomed, although instead of the tough-as-nails gunfighter we get a nameless lizard (Johnny Depp), with nothing but a headless doll and a plastic fish to keep him company in the fish tank where he lives. It’s a sad, lonely existence for the little guy; to pass the time, the lizard acts out various stories. In route to a new home, the lizard’s tank smashes on the freeway and he’s instantly abandoned, out in the wide world with no idea what to do next. After some spirit guidance from a bisected road armadillo (Alfred Molina), the lizard walks into the desert until he meets up with Beans (Isla Fisher), who is trying to save her father’s ranch. After getting a ride with Beans to the town of Dirt, the lizard literally makes a name for himself after he decides to invent his own identity as a tough guy gunslinger at the local saloon. Calling himself Rango, he scares off local bad guy Bad Bill (Ray Winstone), and then he manages by accident to kill an eagle that’s been terrorizing the town. In no time at all, he’s been named Sheriff by the Mayor (Ned Beatty) and sworn to be the hero of Dirt.
Dirt has a problem. There’s no water. Even the holy spigot that spouts the stuff every Wednesday has gone to mud. The Mayor seems to have all the water he needs and then some, and no one is sure why or how. Rango begins to take to his role as the town savior, but he becomes afraid that people will find out he’s a fake. And all the while the terrifying Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) is coming to town and he’s not leaving until he kills this upstart sheriff. Can Rango solve the mystery of the missing water and save the town, or will they find out who he really is and throw him to Jake?
Johnny Depp is terrific as Rango, bringing his own personal charm, some Hunter S. Thompson, and real sincerity and wit to his voice performance. It’s probably my favorite role of his in a while. Everyone gives good vocal performances. The behind-the-scenes shorts showed all the actors working together on a soundstage, and the performances feel organic as a result. Some of the performances are so good that you’re not just listening to a particular actor’s voice but just savoring the work instead. Stephen Root, Timothy Olyphant, and Harry Dean Stanton round out the many characters and all turn in wonderful performances.
Visually, the film’s beautiful, quite unlike most CGI animated films of this type. This is not a film that was designed by any kind of marketing department – RANGO’s characters are ugly, hairy, weird looking animals and none of them could be described as “cute.” There’s a real sense of reality to the world created here, and Gore Verbinski and the team of animators that brought this film to life should be applauded that they didn’t candy-coat everything, but instead created a living, breathing environment that the audience could get lost in. Pixar may seriously have to up their game after this film. Although the animals aren’t photo-real there’s a texture to them; the scales of Rango and Rattlesnake Jake, the hairs on the furry creatures, and the feathers on the eagle look remarkable. I’m especially happy this wasn’t in 3D – the natural dimming of the screen would have made all this gorgeous scenery look like mud.
Gore Verbinski does here what he did with the first PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN – he almost gives us too much to work with. Like PIRATES, RANGO can stand to lose about 15 minutes in the midsection. Hans Zimmer’s score pays homage to the Ennio Morricone music of yesteryear, and Los Lobos’ songs in the film are a delight as well. John Logan’s script seems to pop, and it’s not afraid to be bizarre. It’s funny in many the same ways a Coen Brothers film is funny – the dialogue is spectacularly witty and clever, but the real humor is in the characters and the situations. The film’s not overly violent, but the threat of violence is everywhere, and the film isn’t afraid to let the audience know that it has the potential to go places that most films like this do not.
RANGO trusts the audience to keep up with it, a rarity these days. The movie’s weird, but weird in that fun way and the filmmakers seem confident that they can take the audience to places they didn’t expect. There’s quite a bit of in-jokes (Hunter S. Thompson fans will have a lot of fun with this one) and a couple of character cameos that made me very happy as a film geek. The whole film has a sense of playfulness in it that’s reminiscent of the best Pixar films. The animators seem to be constrained only by the whims of their imagination.
RANGO plays with all the common Western tropes - the John Wayne days of derring-do, the beautiful vistas of John Ford, the gritty spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone - puts them all in a blender, and what comes out is something wonderful. If you wanted to introduce your kids to the genre, you could do far worse than RANGO. Like KUNG FU PANDA does for old school Shaw Brothers martial arts films, RANGO does for the Western. Any geek parent could show their kids RANGO and then say, “You think that was something, check THIS out,” and put in RIO BRAVO, or A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and go to town. If RANGO had been out when I was a kid, I would have jumped into the genre with both legs. RANGO makes Westerns fun again. A terrific introduction to the genre, RANGO is perfect family entertainment.