Film review by: Witney Seibold


Clearly, the sight of a chameleon in a Hawaiian shirt, and being voiced by Johnny Depp, is supposed to invoke thoughts of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” That’s where we start…


Gore Verbinski‘s animated feature “Rango” is being touted as a film for children, but it’s one of those refreshing children’s films that feels like it was made with adults in mind. This is not one of those insufferable talking-animal, CGI-animated, pop-culture-exploiting, pseudo-comedies that infects our fair land’s multiplexes (I’m thinking of anything from “Shark Tale” to “Madagascar” to, yes, even “Shrek”). This is a CGI-animated film that actually has a good deal of character, a point of view, and a quirky filmmaker who is clearly following his passions.


When you look at a stylish, stylized action film like, say “300,” you get the feeling that there’s no passion behind the material; clearly the director is trying to make the film look as flashy as possible, and leans so heavily on style that all palpable, adult thought and much-needed cogency seem to fall by the wayside. Conversely, when you look at stylish, stylized action film like “Kill Bill,” you sense that the filmmaker has a personal interest in the style; in the case of “Kill Bill,” Tarantino was using his style to make a larger point about the way cinema can be used. The style is the substance. “Rango,” I am pleased to report, is a stylish pastiche more in the vein of Tarantino and a mindless fluffy kids’ film. This is a film you will enjoy more than your children do. When “Rango” makes references to things like The Man With No Name, Kim Novak, Hunter S. Thompson (who actually makes an animated cameo), and “Chinatown,” you get the definite sense that they were included because the filmmaker thought they were genuinely interesting things, and not included for the sake of a cutesy joke.


But to the film:


Depp plays the voice of a nameless chameleon who falls out of a car, and finds himself lost in the Mojave desert. This chameleon is a bit off; he’s clearly been locked up in his glass case for too long, as his only friendships seem to be with inanimate objects. He is obsessed with acting, even though he has never had an audience. You get the feeling (through an extended isolated opening sequence) that this chameleon has likely never spoken to another animal. When he wanders into the town of Dirt, he is asked who he is. On the fly, he invents an identity for himself. Of course, the identity he invents is that of a badass, hero type who once killed seven bad guys with a single bullet. He dubs himself “Rango.”


The politics in Dirt are a bit sketchy. The animals use water as currency, and they’re in the middle of a horrible drought. The town’s mayor, a tortoise played by Ned Beatty, is an old soul, but is clearly modeled after John Huston in “Chinatown,” so you know he’s up to something sinister. After accidentally killing a hawk (!), Rango is appointed sheriff of this here, one-desert-chicken-burg, and is appointed the task of tracking down the water.


Something I liked about “Rango” was that the feckless and compulsively lying hero was never really called on his shit. He’s a blowhard, yes. But he’s not a deceiver. His charm and confidence (and no small amount of sheer dumb luck) keep his heroic in the eyes of the people; the film is free of those horribly orchestrated “comic” moments where the hero makes a total ass of himself in front of everyone, and still slides by on – I dunno, mass hypnosis? This is a film that bothers instead, to capture a tone. This is a kind of dark film, full of death and threats of betrayal, but is still infused with some whimsy. If it resembles anything, it’s “The Secret of NIMH.”


It took a fellow critic to point this out to me (hi, William!), but Rango also represents an interesting existential dilemma as well: If you have no identity, and you are a blank slate, you may choose to live your life however you see fit. Our hero chameleon chooses to be a hero, and acts to live up to it. Is this not the core of existentialism?

In the bar

There’s also a wonderful moment of pure surrealism in “Rango” involving a quest to find water, and a series of slumping, spiky, walking Joshua trees that look like something out of a Dali painting. Watching the little chameleon following these peculiarly monstrous flora, shuffling through the desert sands is a singlual and dream-like experience.


This film also has an excellent cast. Harry Dean Stanton appears as a blind, bank-robbing mole. Bill Nighy plays a wickedly awesome rattlesnake (who not only has a Lee Van Cleef hat and mustache, but bares a rotating Gatling gun where his rattle ought to be). Alfred Molina plays a Mexican armadillo who dispenses wisdom. Isla Fisher plays the hard-workin’ desert moll-slash-love interest. And Timothy Olyphant appears as a Clint Eastwood-like spirit.


I predict that “Rango” will have a small, passionate cult in a few years. Check back with me then. See if I’m right.

Published in: on March 4, 2011 at 9:59 am  Leave a Comment  

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