Johnny Depp as Rango
Isla Fisher as Beans
Abigail Breslin as Priscilla
Ned Beatty as Mayor
Alfred Molina as Roadkill
Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake
Stephen Root as Doc / Merrimack / Mr. Snuggles
Harry Dean Stanton as Balthazar
Timothy Olyphant as Spirit of the West
Ray Winstone as Bad Bill
Directed by Gore Verbinski
After finding himself lost and alone in on the edge of a highway in the middle of a desert, a chameleon (Depp) with acting aspirations finds the performance of a lifetime, dubbing himself Rango and stepping into the role of a Western hero and savior to a town on the verge of drought. He soon learns, though, that there are risks that come with playing any part.
Imagine the kind of dreamy marvel that might emerge if Salvador Dali and Sergio Leone teamed to remake “Chinatown” with a cast comprised entirely of lizards, snakes and other desert creatures. Cue a Greek Mariachi chorus to moves from a Gonzo playbook, fueled by visual effects to rival “Avatar,” and you’ve got some idea as to the surreal storytelling delight that is Gore Verbinksi’s latest.
“Rango” is, through and a through, a great piece of filmmaking, arriving in a final form that doesn’t begin to feel in any way watered down or a retread of what’s worked in the past. Maybe that’s because it wears its references on its sleeve and unapologetically asks the audience to embrace whatever clichés and archetypes the film may offer with loving arms or be left near literally in the dust.
Just as the film’s desert environment challenges Depp’s nameless chameleon to force an identity, “Rango” builds its narrative out of fractured pieces of cinema. Not unlike a dreamscape, the story exists as something weird but tangible. On the surface, it’s an entertaining children’s tale, but it’s also open for deeper analysis, as far in as the viewer wants to go.
Some jokes have been levied at the film’s advertising and the prominence of Depp’s name on the poster, leading to the recurring gag that the film is actually titled, “Johnny Depp Is Rango.” Fantastically, such a reading would not be altogether inaccurate. The unnamed chameleon is an actor without a role and bears significant attributes of past Depp performances, most notably (even referenced in the film) Raoul Duke from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and William Blake from “Dead Man.” How, then, is this lizard not Johnny Depp and the world he traverses a synecdoche for storytelling itself? And if we’re experiencing the story and can identify with the lizard’s existential plight as well, isn’t he us, too? There’s a lot of fun stuff to play with here.
It should be pointed out that “Rango” is not being shown in 3D and, in what might be the biggest argument yet against the format yet, emerges with far more depth, detail and scale than anything viewed through a pair of plastic glasses.
What Verbinski has done with “Rango” is tear down every convention of modern animated fare (which is not to say that that convention hasn’t turned out some great films) and built it up from scratch. The result is so fresh and exciting that there’s a constant question of, “Is he really allowed to do that?” alongside some well-earned laughs, gasps and winces. Like a gunfighter itself, the film calls out the competition and while the box office take will ultimately decide, for better or worse, exactly how imitated “Rango” becomes, the artistic gauntlet is hereby thrown down:
We know what it looks like when you don’t play it safe.