An unnamed chameleon (Johnny Depp) finds fifteen minutes in a film to go from an emptied aquarium inside a car traveling a highway to a small town called Dirt, inhabited by other animals. Trying to blend in with these Westerners, the chameleon comes up with the persona of a mean, bar fighting man from somewhere more west and christens himself as Rango, getting his name from an alcohol bottle from Durango. He finds a love interest in Beans (Isla Fisher), the daughter of a dead bean farmer who’s had better days. Her provenance and femininity means that she’s both strong-willed and scrappy. She’d occasionally roll her eyes at Rango but she’s sometimes vulnerable and needs him.
Rango is about the visuals. We know that our hero is the perpetually domesticated one, unable to change his green coat no matter how many times he sheds his skin, which is ironic since he is a chameleon. We also know that the gamut of cowboys, gunslingers, ranch hands and Southern gentlemen of Dirt are anachronistically Western since they’re mostly grey and furry, their period clothing coated with the sand that might occasionally blow their way. The work in Rango’s scales of the scales of the other reptiles aren’t as intense like the work in How to Train your Dragon. The mammals sometimes look scarily realistic – you can feel the hair in their faces and all.
There are the other visual antics in the film’s mise-en-scene, lights, shadows, arid desert haze, textural rocks on the desert, a gigantic eye overlooking Rango’s posse as they cross through a system of underground burrows, infernal sunset light, Rango drawing on the sky (easily my favourite image of the film). The latter images aren’t oversold, but they are often references to other westerns/neo-westerns/movies set on deserts, the lack of originality is slightly frustrating. I also felt conflicted while watching the film, kicking myself for not seeing it in 3D but also thinking that the animation in itself effectively suggests dimension and depth.
The third conflict in my head, which quickly and surprisingly went away, started when I was seeing the featurettes for the film. The film is shot through ‘emotional capturing,’ which is basically the cast in a studio acting the scenes out and there’s a camera involved or something. I always thought that I’d rather watch the actors on set than to see the animated product, a la Dogville. But then I liked watching the valleys where Rango and his posse are being chased. Or watching Depp personify this childlike, imaginative and naive protagonist, a role that would have been a bit old for him. Reminds me of Clooney in Fantastic Mr. Fox, where both can be goofier and funnier than their real, physical human bodies can allow. And hey, I’m actually liking a Depp performance. When was the last time that happened?
Rango meets a few enemies, his bravado looks laughable. His feeble body also means that he’s agile. His earlier, circumstantial tests of bravery eventually gets him to meet the town’s reclusive mayor (Ned Beatty, playing an animated villain again). They mayor appoints him as the town’s sheriff. His main duty as sheriff is to protect the scarce amount of water in Dirt, a commodity also used as currency. Here we have the biggest flaw of the film, the plot. The town eventually gets disillusioned from Rango, town gets disillusioned from mayor, Rango tries to win town back by finding out how the mayor controls the water and taking that control away from him. The formulaic storyline makes me care less about the outcome, the visuals mostly seeming like window dressing. 3/5.