So often these days, it seems like big budget movies are made with a specific audience in mind, in a cynical attempt by studios to maximise profits at the expense of stifling creativity.
But every so often, along comes a major studio release that is so markedly different from the “paint by numbers” fodder that tends to flood the industry that it can only be the result of filmmakers interested in telling the kind of story they want to, demigraphics and creative think tanks be damned.
So it was with Rango, Gore Verbinski’s screwball animated Western, which premiered five years ago this month. I’m not entirely sure what audience Rango was made for – possibly for film buffs, but more than likely for the filmmakers themselves – but regardless, I sure am glad that it exists.
The film follows the exploits of Rango (Johnny Depp), a pet chameleon who finds himself stranded in small desert town populated by a variety of outrageous talking animals.
Along the way, he bluffs his way into becoming the sheriff – despite having pretty much no gunslinging ability whatsoever – and finds the time for romance with iguana Beans (Isla Fisher).
While everything seems to be going swimmingly for the little guy, Rango’s career (not to mention his very life) is soon threatened when he uncovers a plot involving the town’s dwindling water supply, a situation made even more dire 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 amazingly off-beat and amusing adventure, filled with kinetic set pieces, genuine emotional beats and surprisingly deep themes.
Like I said before, it’s a film that seems utterly disinterested in appealing to the lowest common denominator, and so it follows that it’s a family film filled with references to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Dollars trilogy, and – most importantly – Chinatown, all of which will mean nothing to the average nine year old child.
It’s also populated with one of the ugliest cast of cartoon characters ever to grace the screen, who are 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, and 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, 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 Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
Look out! Spoilers!
As I hinted at earlier, there’s more to Rango than just dry humour and madcap derring-do, though. It also offers up a disarmingly deep meditation on identity, and the nature of stories and belief in shaping our lives.
Early in the film, Rango is introduced to the concept of the Spirit of the West – the fabled living embodiment of Wild West legend.
Later, after being run out of town as a phony, Rango encounters the Spirit, who fittingly takes the form of none other than Clint Eastwood, in his Man With No Name persona (and complete with a golf cart and five golden statuettes!).
The Spirit declares – in a raspy voice provided by another modern cowboy, Timothy Olyphant – that the deeds make the man; even if Rango was a faker and his actions until now haven’t panned out, if he chooses to actually become the hero the townsfolk need him to be, then that’s what he’ll become.
When Rango questions whether he can even go back and face his former friends (as well as his enemies!), the Spirit draws a rectangular box in the dust on the cart’s windshield, enclosing Rango in a crude sort of movie screen, and plainly states:
“No man can walk out on his own story.”
It’s an unbelievably meta moment for an all-ages cartoon, yet its meaning is clear – we are all, like Rango, the stars of our own story. What we – and others – believe that story to be, and the choices we make in service to that story, will ultimately decide how it all ends for each of us.
The spoilers! They’re…they’re gone!
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 enthral audiences of all ages – even if it wasn’t aimed entirely at them in the first place.
That’s it for this review – now it’s your to have your say!