I wasn't expecting much. After all, 'Rango' is directed by Gore Verbinski - and even if I did enjoy his work on the first 'Pirates' film, there's that whole Hollywood-populist-director bullshit to overcome. And it was animated.
First clue that it's a lot better than you'd expect? It's not in 3D. Coulda been. Wasn't. And the animation is farking beautiful. Much, much more beautiful than with stupid glasses balanced on my nose, giving me a headache.
Second clue? Well... there's that cast. Johnny Depp as the out-of-place chameleon who calls himself Rango. Ned Beatty as the mayor of the town Dirt, doing a vocal James Coburn so damned good I found myself trying to remember whether or not Coburn is still alive. (I don't think he is.) A whole bunch of others with some decent acting chops. Yeah.
Then there's Hans Zimmer's score. I am really starting to like Zimmer's cinematic work. Loved the 'Pirates' score. Really enjoyed the 'Sherlock Holmes' score. And this one? Well, let's just say the blue-grass version of 'Ride Of The Valkyries' done on banjo is about as special as it gets.
The storyline is nothing too outrageous. Rango is a chameleon who lives in a tank. During a move, he falls out of the car and into the desert somewhere near Las Vegas (and there is a fucking hilarious cameo from an animated Hunter S Thompson which will send anyone who remembers 'Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas' into fits of laughter. Damn near killed me.)
Abandoned in the burning sun, Rango-to-be finds a shaman in the form of an armadillo flattened on the road who gives him the usual sage, cryptic advice. Then he wanders off and is found by a female lizard named 'Beans' who takes him to the local dead-end town, Dirt.
Dirt - and the rest of the movie - is populated by animals who stand in for the usual Wild West characters. And frankly, it's here that the movie begins to become truly outstanding. There's been a lot of good animation in the last few years, but the visualisation of the animal characters in 'Rango' is truly brilliant. The creatures are utterly believable, wholly convincing to the eye - and yet they still suggest the classic Western stereotypes from which they are drawn.
The film is doubly plotted. The town is running out of water, courtesy of the villainous machinations of a character who shall not be announced in this review, not that it would really spoil anything, and it's up to Rango to save it. And of course, Rango himself is nothing more than a creation: a lie, invented on the spot to keep himself out of trouble. (He's a chameleon, remember? Blending in is what he does.) Therefore he has to undergo the inevitable quest to discover his own true nature, and be the hero of his own story.
Neither of these is particularly new, of course. But they are played out with subtlety and just enough irony against a backdrop composed of a loving homage to all the great Western films -- and the animators are allowed to join the game, which makes the entire 'feel' of the film truly wonderful. For example, the scene of the animal posse riding out on roadrunners, silhouetted in distorting heat-haze against a setting sun, is done so very beautifully that were it shot in a 'real' film, somebody would be up for cinematographical awards. Here, in an animated film, it's entirely gratuitous, and therefore hilarious in its self-aware irony - but it's also still very beautifully done, enjoyable on several levels simultaneously.
The film is full of clever, subtle pop culture references, and some which are less subtle but still clever. It's beautifully realised. The dialogue is marvellous. The characters are charming, and deeply individual while recalling their western-film origins. There's plenty of action, remarkable visuals, tonnes of invention, and an altogether satisfying conclusion to both levels of storytelling.
I'm very glad I saw 'Rango' on the big screen with the kids. I'd see it again, if it wasn't such a fuss, and I'm sure I'd get new things from it. As it is, I'm going to buy it on DVD and chances are it'll become a favourite for family film festival nights.
Rango is hot. Go and see it. Now.