Rango is the sort of film that winks and nods toward other films with knowing glee. It is sometimes very good at what it does, but it also drags in large measure and lacks heart and soul. Directed by Gore Verbinski and featuring an august cast of voice actors, this 2011 animated feature was one of the better-reviewed animated features of the year.
Rango is aptly sandy and relies on references to Sergio Leone westerns and comedy westerns like Cat Ballou. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the approach, of course, and Rango really does work in a number of ways, but it ultimately stumbles in involving beyond the level of sincere homage.
We’re introduced to a pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) who becomes stranded in the Mojave Desert after falling from his owner’s car. He meets a wise armadillo (Alfred Molina) and avoids being eaten by a hawk. Later, he meets a desert iguana (Isla Fisher) and discovers an Old West town appropriately named Dirt. Dirt hasn’t had water in years and the reserves are running low.
The chameleon, who just happens to be a terrific improviser, relies on his skills to fit in and presents himself as Rango. One thing leads to another and Rango is suddenly the sheriff of Dirt, appointed to the post by the mayor (Ned Beatty). Sheriff Rango elects to look into the water problem, but what he discovers is a sinister plot and a series of events that leads to an encounter with Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy).
The accidental hero is a staple in a lot of western films. The notion that Rango would enter Dirt as a Chameleon with No Name and leave a hero of sorts is right on target. We know that Rango is a fake and it’s a matter of when, not if, he’s discovered as the thespian he really is. It helps that he knows how to endure on his wits and that he has a lot of luck in defeating enemies with falling objects and/or “a single bullet.”
Rango is packed with references from many, many movies. There’s a bat attack that calls to mind Apocalypse Now and a chase sequence that reminds of Star Wars’ space battles. There are allusions to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, too, but there’s very little Rango in Rango. The movie doesn’t set its own account as much as it borrows successfully from others.
The irony here is that Rango remarks about his own lack of identity at the beginning of the picture. He wonders who he is when he wobbles around the desert and the only deduction he appears to reach is that he is anybody but who he is. He is Leone’s Man with No Name, he is Don Knotts and he is Johnny Depp. Who is Rango? Nobody knows. Not that it seems to matter.
What this lack of identity does for the film is avert our gaze somewhere else. Sure, the animation is good and the chase/fight sequences are neat and convincing (but mostly futile). But the dialogue is right out of the spaghetti western playbook and the disinterest is tangible, even from the voice actors. And the plot, winding as it does through various western tropes, only lands on something significant in the third act.
Rango isn’t a bad movie, to be sure. It has a lot going for it and it deserves marks for trying to do something unique in the animated feature field. Sadly, the originality winds up taking a backseat to a series of clichés and knowing winks. It all gets a little bit tedious and no quantity of Kim Novak jokes can postpone the inevitable slog to the finish.