“Who am I? I could be anyone”—Rango
If a chameleon lives alone in a tank and no one is around to see it, is he truly alive? It’s a weighty question, but one that Rango‘s protagonist sets out to answer in one of the strangest animated films to come out in decades.
Rango begins with an unnamed lizard living a life of leisure in a terrarium. Though every once in a while, life’s existential questions distract him, he’s mostly happy to live in his tank and keep company with an orange, wind-up fish and a decapitated Barbie doll.
Thinks get rattled when the habitat, in transit, falls out of the window of a car and breaks, stranding him in the desert. He moseys to the nearest town—a near-ghost-town with the apt name of Dirt—adopts the name Rango (Johnny Depp), and sets about on a quest to find his true, tankless identity. Wanting to create a hero’s identity for himself, he also vows to ingratiate himself with the townspeople by finding out what happened to Dirt’s dwindling water supply.
Though animated films often feature some sort of heroic epic, few quests are as intangible as Rango‘s. Perhaps that’s because most animated films are pitched at kids, with a few jokes and references tossed in there for adults. Rango works in the opposite way. While it works entirely as a family film, kids are not the primary target audience.
Rango is an all-out Western, and it’s made first and foremost for an audience that’s nostalgic for movies like High Noon and Once Upon a Time in the West. The film proves over and over again that, given the choice between pleasing a child and getting a smile from a grown-up spaghetti-Western fan, it’ll go for the latter every time, be it through classic Western compositions (the hero riding against a sunset—only it’s a lizard on a road runner) or an over-the-head reference to a beloved film (as well as nods to non-Westerns like Singin’ in the Rain, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Raising Arizona, and Chinatown, among others).
If there’s an immediate indication of the film’s intentions, it’s the designs of the characters. They are not child-pleasing. Production designer Mark ‘Crash’ McCreery emphasized what was least cute about Dirt’s denizens—Rango’s bulging asymmetrical eyes, Mayor’s weathered turtle skin—and then added a layer of dirt, grime, dust, and general grunginess for good measure. At one point in the Blu-Ray’s commentary—which is, no pun intended, pretty dry—one of the filmmakers remarked that he wished he could pop out one of the characters’ eyeballs and give it a good scrubbing, that’s how dingy it looked. Watching Rango can make you itchy and thirsty.
Geroge Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic is also responsible for the look of the film. In two lengthy making-of featurettes included on the Blu-Ray, animators explain that they were going for a hyper-detailed look at the world. It does look like you can see every crack on the villains’ scaly skin and every grain of sand in the desert. It vacillates between being grotesque and being gorgeous, and the two combine to be somewhat awe-inspiring. (Some lighting by visual consultant Roger Deakins certainly doesn’t hurt in this regard.)
Since even the heroic characters have a certain amount of ugliness imbued in them, there has to be something else about them to earn the audience’s sympathies. Thankfully, their outsize personalities are, in contrast to their appearances, sparkling. Both Rango and Captain Jack Sparrow are fakers who are good at smooth-talking their ways out of adverse situations, but Depp manages to give two different, bonkers, motor-mouthed performances. Add in the gangly way that Rango moves—and, being a chameleon, sometimes he walks like a Western tough-guy, sometimes he scurries like a mouse—and there’s an easy charm about him. It’s easy to see how the town of Dirt could believe he’s their hero, even when he doesn’t know who he is himself.
If anything matches Rango’s instant likeability, it’s the spunk of the tough critters he encounters mostly notably fellow lizard Beans (Isla Fisher). Another extra feature in the Blu-Ray release of the movie shows audiences the real desert animals that the characters are based on: armadillos, toads, snakes, spiders, and a weird little thing called an Aye-aye (found in Madagascar, not really in the West). Hosted by a naturalist that pokes and prods at dangerous animals, this seems like one of the few features in the whole Rango package that might appeal to kids.
The rest is certainly for animation geeks. In addition to the commentary track and the two behind-the-scenes features, all of which showcase plenty of director Gore Verbinski going over the minutia of storytelling and animation, you can also access the movie’s storyboards as a picture-in-picture, as well as take a virtual, 3D tour of the town of Dirt.
There’s also a smattering of deleted scenes, including an excised original ending that feels like an epilogue to the film’s true stopping place. Though it’s a snappy and altogether happy scene, Verbinksi rightly notes that the extra epilogue spoils the more dramatic button they’d put on the movie. If there’s one strength in Rango, it’s knowing that giving people what they want—cute characters, an easy and clear obstacle to overcome—is not always the right move.