Gore Verbinski, 2011

Rating: 5 out of 5

Rango is a delightful film that can be enjoyed not only by young children as wonderful visual treat but also as a fantastic piece of work that draws inspiration and pays homage to numerous films, as a result rewarding and pleasing more intelligent and experienced film watchers.

If you were to show this film to your child and expect to share a family experience similar to a Disney Pixar delight such as Toy Story or Wall-E then you may be disappointed. The strength of Rango lies not with its soul and charm, the main protagonist is in fact rather ugly and the film uses a landscape that we associate with gritty spaghetti westerns – a strong contrast to the vibrant colours in films such as Up And Brave. Instead the Rango relies on its style and intelligence; it’s wholly fresh and original, like no animation you have ever seen before.

Compare Rango with one of Disney Pixar’s most recent film franchise, Cars. One is a film that takes a classic genre, its environment, characters and characteristics that we associate it with and combine it with various other plot elements from other films, without feeling derivative but instead keeping its work fresh, creative and unpredictable, the other is a film about talking cars.

The film’s eponymous protagonist is voiced by Johnny Depp who works with Gore Verbinski once again following their partnership in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Whilst I am not a particularly big fan of the film franchise you can not criticise Verbinski’s winning formula that has been extremely successful at putting a fresh, creative and exuberant spin on classic topic. I feel though that Verbinski’s first ever feature film Mousehunt can be better compared to Rango, a family comedy about a pesty rodent who refuses to leave a house in a Home Alone style comedy of errors from those attempting to get rid of the mouse, like Rango it can be categorised as a family film however it is similar in the fact that parents may feel uneasy at times letting their kids watch two films that both contain more darker elements, although Rango is a Western so I think it would be more disappointing if we did not see smoking, bad language and a little bit of violence.

The story begins when Rango – as he later becomes known – tells us of the acting dreams he has, he is nothing more than a small pet chameleon but is then thrown into the fantasy world of his dreams, although this world is not how he quite imagined it with the town of Dirt clearly not thriving as it should be in the good old West.

Rango’s arrival into the town of Dirt is almost identical to the character of Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s first film of the Dollars Trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars. We see Rango standing with the Mayor on a balcony that overlooks the town, almost parallel to one of the opening scenes in A Fistful of Dollars where we see the Man with No Name taking in his new surroundings, a town he is completely new to and a town he can use to his advantage as an experienced bounty hunter. Rango’s story is almost the opposite, although also without a name, he is also without a reputation or any type of experience that would aid him in solving the town’s main issue. In A Fistful of Dollars we see a capable bounty hunter play off rival factions of the town through his gun wielding skills. In the town of Dirt the problem is that that the water town has dried up, they are in need of a new sheriff, a hero to rescue them of their problems. Rango is not equipped to deal with any of such issues, but as you may expect ends up self volunteering for all three in a fantastic bar scene – that also draws some parallels to the gritty bar scene at the beginning of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West in terms of visual style and atmosphere – where through improvisation introduces himself as the tough and experienced drifter who famously killed seven brothers with one bullet, naming himself ‘Rango’.

What follows is a storyline almost identical to Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown, with Rango fulfilling the role played by Jack Nicholson, a private detective that finds himself drawn into a conspiracy involving a powerful organisation attempting to control the future through means of the water supply. The villain in Rango is the Mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty), an old aged turtle who is suspiciously unaffected by the lack of water and is able to enjoy the many luxuries of the west, such as golf. He is happy to allow the visibly out of depth Rango continue his role as Sheriff, not expecting the dim-witted chameleon to find much in his quest to get to the bottom of the water mystery. This character has two clear inspirations; one is the prospector Morton from Once Upon a Time in the West, and the other more noticeable is Noah Cross from Chinatown, a greedy and powerful old man who is portrayed by the great John Huston.

The film’s story combines a number of Western elements and the result is a very enjoyable story that is full of life, resulting in an enjoyable climax as a result of the inevitable Western style face off. The film’s central part is sandwiched between the two more serious parts and is focussed on the hunt for water, with Rango forming a traditional Western style posse to hunt down the men who he unknowingly led to the water bank, only further emphasising how incapable he really is in the role of Sheriff. This results in one of the films most memorable and exciting action scenes where Rango and his posse face off against an army of moles whom he discovers that to his surprise did not steal the town’s water. What occurs next is a scene that pays homage to one of my all time favourite film scenes, the helicopter attack from Apocalypse Now.

** Slight spoilers in the following two paragraph - if you are interested in the film you should probably skip **

After returning to town with more questions and answers the Mayor becomes increasingly concerned at how eager Rango is to uncover the truth, so calls in the dreaded Rattlesnake Jake, a vicious creature that ‘never leaves without taking a soul’ having only previously stayed out of Dirt because of a hawk, that is now dead thanks to Rango. Jake, who the town people believe is in fact Rango’s brother reveals that their favourite Sheriff is nothing more than your average pet, exposing him to be a liar in a scene where the Sheriff’s sign is shot down by Jake. This scene reminded me of the great The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and perhaps even greater parallels can be drawn from the two films overall. In the James Stewart and John Wayne classic, Stewart’s character is a young lawyer named Ransom who attempts to protect the town through means of legal measures, he puts up his own sign for his office with John Wayne warning that it will only be shot down by the ruthless Liberty Valance who will come back and terrorise the town with his violent ways. In both films the protagonists are thrown in to uncomfortable environments where they are way out of their own depth however both men finally provide the inspiration to fight against these men, to stand up to them when the rest of the town’s people wont, a familiar theme in other Westerns such as The Magnificent Seven and Rio Bravo. The snake itself is certainly inspired by one of the greatest villains associated with Spaghetti Westerns, Lee Van Cleef, with the snake bringing the same haunting presence, striking eyes and even his famous hat and moustache.

Rango is forced to leave town, ashamed of the lies he has told. He ventures back across the desert to the busy road where he came from. Like in many other films, we know Rango will inevitably meet encouragement that will drive him on to redeem himself with the town people by helping them. I have seen people say that the film although impressive in technical terms is soulless; hence why parents would rather watch their children watch a Disney Pixar film, unfairly overlooking Rango. I would disagree, although Rango is perhaps not an instantly loveable character in the same bracket as the likes of Wall-E or Nemo, we come to equally love him and even feel sorry for him, an animal with big ambitions who wanted to be somebody but is ultimately useless. Key to the film is the element of adaptation, Rango is not cut out for the town of Dirt and everything he has dreamed of is not as easy and simple as he has dreamt it to be. During Rango’s exile we finally see the personified form of the Spirit of the West who takes the appearance of the legendary Western actor Clint Eastwood, and we get a scene that will likely go over the head of most children, the majority wont know who Eastwood is. Although this scene takes place in a dreamlike sequence for Rango, he recalls his own interpretations of the Spirit of the West, countless times we have watched films where the protagonist refuses to walk out on his own story and in good spirit Rango does the same here, heading back to Dirt for the inevitable showdown between good and evil, with his return much like his opening in the fact it parallels Eastwood’s very own from A Fistful of Dollars.

The animated film is the first animated feature from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), was Gore Verbinski’s first animated feature and was produced by Verbinski’s production company Blind Wink, Graham King (GK) Films and Nickelodeon, although this does not in anyway undermine the individuality of the film that you may have expected to be tailored more strongly towards the audience of children. The film’s composer Hans Zimmer is a more familiar name for audiences and Verbinski himself, with the prestigious composer (Nolan’s Batman Trilogy) having previously worked with Verbinski on The Pirates of the Caribbean films, The Ring and The Weather Man, his score is wacky and delightful, perfectly suiting the film and combining the more traditional sounds of the West such as the work of Ennio Morricone with more fast-paced and energetic sounds that along with the visuals remind us of the Coen Brother’s comedy Raising Arizona.

Rango is like nothing you have ever seen before, and that is what makes it so great. A fresh and innovative attempt at creating an animation that will please a variety of different audiences, as stated in the opening paragraph Verbinski is able to draw inspiration and pay homage to numerous classic films including many from the film’s genre of choice – Westerns. You can not compare Rango to a single Pixar film; it is so unique in its approach although equally as successful with a screenplay that follows an enjoyable formula for children but is filled with a number of surprises and fantastic scenes to make it creative and unpredictable. Rango might just be my personal favourite animated feature film, it is certainly the one I have seen the most, and although I love the delightful films of Pixar that include Wall-EUp, and Toy Story, there is just something about Rango and its unconventional approach to the genre that makes me admire it that little bit more. 

Written by Daniel Metcalf

Daniel Metcalf