Review: Rango is the perfect offbeat antidote to cookie-cutter animated blockbusters

Now more than ever, big budget movies are made with a hyper-specific audience in mind by studios more interested in profit margins than creativity. But every so often, a major studio release comes along that’s so markedly different from the other same-same blockbusters flooding the market that it can only be the result of those involved deciding to tell the kind of story they want to, demographics and creative think tanks be damned.

Rango, Gore Verbinski’s screwball animated Western, certainly fits this description. Released five years ago this month, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who Rango was made for – kids, older film buffs, or even the filmmakers themselves – but whatever the answer may be, anybody who lives their popcorn entertainment less “paint by the numbers” is bound to love it.

The film follows the exploits of Rango (Johnny Depp), a pet chameleon stranded in small desert town populated by a variety of outrageous talking animals. Shortly after arriving, he bluffs his way into becoming the sheriff – despite having no gunfighting ability whatsoever – and finds the time for romance with sassy iguana Beans (Isla Fisher). Before too long, Rango’s career (not to mention his very life) is threatened when he uncovers a plot involving the town’s dwindling water supply, a situation made even worse by the arrival of a real gunslinger, the vile Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy).

Rango is an absolute blast from start to finish.

Working from John Logan’s sharp screenplay, Verbinski has crafted an impressively offbeat and amusing adventure filled with kinetic set pieces, genuine emotional beats, and surprising thematic heft. It’s a film utterly disinterested in appealing to the lowest common denominator, filled with references to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Dollars trilogy, and (most of all) Chinatown certain to fly over the head of the average nine-year-old.

It also boasts the most charmingly ugly cast of cartoon characters ever to grace the screen; a collectively weird bunch in the best possible way. Much of the charm of these characters is down to Rango‘s impeccable voice cast, all of whom bring their A-game.

Depp leads the way, turning in one of his best performances since he and Verbinski first teamed up to create Jack Sparrow. He’s well supported by Fisher, hitting just the right balance between tough and tender as Beans, Ned Beatty at his oily best as the town’s mayor Tortoise John, and Nighy, who’s suitably terrifying as Rattlesnake Jake.

These characters and their world are brought to life with breathtaking skill by the digital artists at ILM, working on their first full-length CGI film ever. That the legendary effects house knocks it out of the park will come as no surprise, and between the detailed textures that adorn the characters and the environments, the subtle performances and inventive action sequences, it’s not hard to see why Rango was rewarded with the 2011 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

But as I hinted at earlier, there’s more to Rango than just madcap derring-do and jaw-dropping visuals. It also offers up a disarmingly deep meditation on identity and the nature of stories and belief in shaping our lives.

This comes to a head with the appearance fairly late in the game by the Spirit of the West – who bears a striking resemblance to a certain action star turned Oscar-winning director, and proceeds to break down narrative theory for Rango – in a powerful bit of meta-commentary that’s all the more amazing because it’s in an all-ages feature.

Rango is proof positive that there’s still plenty of creativity in Hollywood, provided studios are prepared to back the vision of filmmakers keen to wander off the beaten track. Thanks to its clever script, excellent voice acting, and eye-popping visuals, the film is likely to enthrall audiences of all ages – even if it wasn’t aimed entirely at them in the first place.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

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