Rango is the most beautiful animated film since the golden age of hand-drawn cartoons. But where those classic Walt Disney films had an artistic grace of illustration, Rango’s beauty is rooted more firmly in creating an idealized version of live action filmmaking. Continually Oscar-snubbed cinematographer Roger Deakins was brought in as a consultant, and with his help the animators at ILM created a film that is saturated in gorgeous lighting, that has stunning landscape shots, that includes jaw-dropping action compositions and just generally looks like a series of pristine photographs of the American West, brought to life by geniuses.
Shame that the movie has no heart beneath all that beauty, though. An immaculately animated romp through the Wikipedia pages of a number of other films (mostly Chinatown, believe it or not), Rango is filled with forced whimsy and constant riffs on classic cinema. How much does the movie riff on other movies? As if Rango starting the film dressed in a Hunter S Thompsonian Hawaiian shirt wasn’t enough of an homage to Johnny Depp appearing in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the lizard at one point ends up on the windshield of the car driven by HST and Dr. Gonzo as they enter bat country.
Somehow when lifting entire segments of the Chinatown script John Logan, working from a story by Gore Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit, forgot to create a lead character who had much of interest going on. Rango is a housepet chameleon who ends up lost in the desert and becomes the sheriff of a dusty town called Dirt that is facing a devastating drought. Rango fancies himself an actor and a bon vivant, but he’s really a nobody who pretends in order to fit in. But the film never allows Rango to have that self-awareness; in a weird decision Rango is pretty much free of self-doubt and filled with self-delusion. This made it hard for me to root for him on any level - he’s not constantly on the cusp of being discovered as a phony (nor is he worried about it) and he’s also not actively faking in order to get something from the townspeople. He’s essentially just going with the flow of what everybody else around him thinks he is, which is not very dramatically appealing.
It’s rare these days that Johnny Depp delivers something that feels like an actual performance, and Rango is no exception. It’s schtick - different schtick than what he does in Pirates, or what he did in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but schtick nonetheless. For some people schtick is enough, but I’m bored of Depp’s increasingly belabored quirkiness. I wanted him to find a real center to Rango, but it never comes. To be honest the script doesn’t help him much - it ticks off character beats in the most perfunctory manner possible, never making them organic parts of the story or the character. For instance the scene when the inhabitants of Dirt inevitably find out the truth about Rango happens because a character who never appeared and couldn’t possibly know the truth shows up and tells everybody. It’s as if Logan said ‘Shit, we gotta get him to the low point so he can come back up heroically,’ but didn’t care to make it actually work.
While I found Rango himself to be a tedious bore of a character he’s surrounded by wonderful supporting players. Gore Verbinski didn’t motion capture the movie but did have the actors play together on stage, and animated over that. This brings a sense of real life to the characters, who are played by a troupe of truly terrific actors. Even the least important inhabitant of the town of Dirt has something unique going on at the edge of the frame. ILM’s astonishing animation and character work lends an invaluable assist here; watching great actors being allowed to act and then having those performances reinterpreted by great artists is a wonderful thing, and it offers up most of the pleasures of Rango.
There are sublime moments in Rango. A canyon chase inspired by Star Wars is incredible, and there are a couple of Jodorowsky-esque hallucinatory moments that are awesome in the most true sense of the word. Animation seems truly suited to Verbinski’s vision, and he’s able to get the elaborate and perfect shots that cost him hundreds of millions on the Pirates movies. As a visual spectacle Rango will probably be unequaled this year; weirdly enough the movie I’d most compare it to is Enter The Void in that both films are worth seeing on the big screen despite any other issues one might have with them.
Some of the antics in Rango were enjoyable, and almost every frame of the movie is worthy of framing on your wall, but I can’t imagine sitting through the film again. All of the artistry that went into the look of the film and all of the wonderful secondary character tics and designs made for a good first viewing, but the profound lack of heart at the center of the story left me ultimately unstirred. I didn’t much care what happened, but it sure was nice looking. You should go see this movie on the big screen, where its majestic visuals will be best served.