Rango (2011)

Recent animation has suffered from relentless 3D, not to mention a tendency towards diluted story lines, under-developed characters, and overly safe humour. Too much of the wrong thing, and too little originality, has meant that it’s been a long time since I’ve sat through an animated blockbuster and not eagerly anticipated the end. Just as I was about to give up hope on Hollywood, along comes Rango with his identity issues, his metaphysical self-awareness, and his little beady eyes, shaking up a genre that was dying a slow death.

The story follows a pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) who is stranded in the desert after being knocked out of the back of a moving car. Used to life within the confines of a glass tank, this lizard has trouble adapting to the idea of existence within wider society. You only have to look at the front cover to determine that this character has issues. Clutching a plastic fish from his artificial home, “Rango” (as he names himself later on) is a reptile puzzled by universal questions. “Who am I?” he repeats, staring blankly into the distance. Accustomed to acting out scenes rather than living them, we see Rango construct an identity for himself in a town called Dirt, where he claims to have journeyed from “the West”. Claiming that he killed seven brothers with one bullet, he is given the position of town Sheriff. He soon involves himself in the investigation of some dodgy dealings to do with the town’s water going missing, and finds himself attracted to an iguana named Beans (Isla Fisher). What follows is a trippy, hyper-real, and existential Western packed full of jokes and entertainment.

The animation is beautiful and achieves a believable three-dimensionality without being 3D. The opening crash scene where the tank hits the road is stunning, with beads of water and smashed glass flying through the air in delicious slow motion, and the action scenes (usually where I switch off in animations) are arresting and inventive. This is all helped by the brilliant score by Hans Zimmer, which compliments the comedy as well as the action; Tex-Mex Western inspired themes wind in and out of scenes with satisfying buoyancy.

The film makes endless references to an array of classic films, actors, and film-makers, including Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Apocalypse Now’s Helicopter scene also makes an appearance, with moles and other furry creatures riding bats to the sound of Ride of the Valkyries being played on banjos (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say). At the beginning, our chameleon even demonstrates his ability to adapt to various acting roles, each being a suggestion of a character that Johnny Depp has played. This association of the actor with the chameleon is simple but clever, and is in keeping with the careful development of characters in the film. My personal favourite is Spoons, an ageing prospector mouse voiced by Alex Manugian, whose dialogue made me laugh the most.

I can’t really do this film justice with just a few paragraphs; it’s full of a magnetism and vibrancy that should be experienced first-hand. One of the best mainstream animations for a long while, it offers entertainment for children at the same time as keeping adults engaged with its incredibly intelligent humour. Rango’s success lies in its blissful surrealism. Not your average Disney outing, it refuses to soften its rough edges, and its humour retains a sharpness that is not always present in animation aimed at children.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★

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