Gore Verbinski got his kid’s movie in our spaghetti Westerns and neo noirs, and the results are surprisingly excellent. Rango, Verbinski’s 2011 animated story of a chameleon who lives in a terrarium and possesses aspirations of stage acting, is a gem, madcap and nutty and palatable for kids but most rewarding for movie lovers and aficionados of the classics. Leaning heavily on Polanski while liberally borrowing from Leone, Rango represents the sort of homage film easily written off for blatantly lifting elements from the films to which it purportedly pays tribute; Verbinski wholesale knicks one of Chinatown‘s major plot points and pastes the iconic image of none other than the Man With No Name into the third act. Inevitably such pastiches raise the ire of the rankled cineaste masses for the criminal act of artistic theft, and nine out of ten times, I can count myself among their number.
In the case of Rango, though, that exact transgression feeds the spirit of the film, providing purpose rather than a crutch for a hack storyteller. Centrally the film is about an actor who seizes an opportunity to actually live out a role rather than portray it on stage; the hapless eponymous reptile spends his days putting on theatrical productions with the inanimate inhabitants of his cage, stitching together rough Shakespeare composites before being unceremoniously jettisoned from the confines of his home and deposited on a barren stretch of highway in the desert. Rango stumbles upon Dirt, a ramshackle town right out of the Western genre itself, which just so happens to be experiencing a water crisis and therefore requires the intervention of a selfless hero.
The rest of the pieces fall into place neatly. Rango sees an opportunity to live out a role instead of portraying it on stage and poses as a wandering gunslinger, and before long the town’s water shortage reveals itself to be more intentional rather than an act of nature; Rango, in short, comes to play his character for real while starring in a movie come to life as he discovers the truth behind where the town’s water has disappeared to. What better way for his story to unfold than to have him cast as a reptilian Don Knotts in a wild West Chinatown variant? And who better to represent the Spirit of the West than a figure resembling a Leone-era Eastwood who sounds like Seth Bullock? In another movie, maybe the sheer volume* of homage on display in Rango would be problematic; given the nature of the film’s basic conceit, they feel appropriate and practically necessary.
Meta readings only take a movie so far, though, and Rango‘s myriad cinematic references would amount to nothing without a competently executed story to make them worthy of their inclusions. Interpretation and analysis aside, Rango is a thoroughly satisfying, beautifully animated, soulful, and imaginative film completely deserving of praise on the strength of its own merits. Refusing to pander to mainstream audiences with innumerable discordant and painfully forced and incongruous pop culture references, Rango works as well-crafted and entertaining children’s fare without dumbing down story and plot elements, leaving it equally accessible for adults if not more so. There’s a liveliness and an energy to Rango that keeps propelling forward the story without slackening tension or pace, and coupled with the inspired lunacy on display in its imagery, from a legion of bat-riding moles to a sentient herd of dried-up cacti, it’s hard to picture anybody being bored by the film. If nothing else, Rango refuses to not entertain its audience.
That particular quality impacts the efforts of the movie’s voice acting cast, too. Verbinski had his actors and actresses partially dressed in costumes and situated at bare-bones sets to actually give their vocal contributions a performance component, a bit of out-of-the-box thinking slowly gaining ground in animated films and which has a palpable impact on the strength of the cast’s aural offerings. Depp leads the pack as the titular chameleon and turns out one of his best roles in years, giving Rango the right balance of actor’s bravado and anxiety while instilling in him the chutzpah to ultimately serve justice to the various evildoers plaguing Dirt. It’s a plum role for an actor of Depp’s proclivities; Rango’s a fairly manic character who must swap seamlessly between talking big and quivering nervously, and Depp possesses the kind of energy needed to pull off his internal dichotomy.
He’s joined by a strong, name cast in which Ned Beatty and Bill Nighy nip at his heels playing the two heavies. Beatty’s not quite as cuddly here as in Toy Story 3— playing a tortoise has that effect– but he’s no less threatening and calculating. Nighy’s playing a much different villain, a legendary outlaw whose ancestry might include Angel Eyes as opposed to Noah Cross. They and the rest of the cast, from Isla Fisher to Ray Wisntone, are clearly enjoying themselves; while it’s impossible to measure the ramifications of the “natural acting” technique used to capture their voice acting, everyone here from the principles to the minor players is very much “on” and it’s hard to believe that the experience Verbinski gave them didn’t have something to do with the overall strength of the work done here. If nothing else, Rango makes a strong case for the benefits of employing natural acting in future animated features by other filmmakers.
Ultimately, Rango is the sort of children’s movie that refuses to sacrifice quality for gimmickry and puts emphasis on story and character first, but that only proves something that doesn’t need to be proven. Pixar has been making the same case successfully for over a decade now, and even Dreamworks can take credit for Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. But it might well be the first kid’s movie to successfully synthesize in-jokes and nods to adult-oriented media without knocking the story off-course. For all of the movie callbacks and meta-themes, Rango remains remarkably child-like in its sensibilities and attitudes, something I mean as the highest of compliments; whether you choose to view the film as a gentler spaghetti Western for kids or as a comment on the nature of actors and acting, it’s well worth a screening.