Gore Verbinski’s Rango is many things, or rather, strives to be many things, which, arguably, is all the better for a film about a wiry, eccentric chameleon who, try as he might, just can’t blend in. We meet our eponymous hero, suitably quirked out with a Hawaiian shirt and a bright-orange windup fish toy for a best friend, as he travels in his glass cage with the family for which he presumably was a beloved pet. Then comes the bump in the road, both figuratively and literally speaking, which sends Rango tumbling onto a patch of asphalt and subsequently into the town of Dirt, where he quickly assumes the role of a wandering, mythical gunslinger capable of shooting down a half-dozen adversaries with a single bullet. And thus the film assumes the role of a western with Verbinski as our Clint Eastwood behind the camera, attempting to advance the genre in his own particular way.
Verbinski’s reputation as a genre director certainly puts him in good placing for a project like Rango, having hopscotched between a big-budget Disney series, a spot-on J-horror remake, and a gloomy Nic Cage vehicle in the last decade, but his tendency to be at once aesthetically inventive and tonally erratic is at its most potent here. The crux of the story has the titular reptile taking on a variety of baddies that are, in one way or another, responsible for the lack of water in Dirt—a storyline more than reminiscent of the plot that got Jack Nicholson’s John Gittes curious in Chinatown. The husks of Django, High Noon, and John Ford’s condensed catalogue can be found strewn among a few dozen other filmic intimations and homages in John Logan’s script, but the film’s pedigree of influences doesn’t speak directly to the movie Verbinski is attempting to make here. We are, after all, dealing with a film largely produced by Nickelodeon, and any hopes that Rango is that rare type of talking-animals movie that will air on the side of Ren & Stimpy rather than SpongeBob SquarePants is dashed within moments of any given scene.
Scenarios, if not outright templates, are at constant odds in Verbinski’s film. In this particular case, the legitimately strange is often upstaged by forgettable silliness, as poop jokes, ironic slang, and nervous screaming are used more times than not in lieu of subtlety and genuine jokes stemming from environment or behavior. More than any of DreamWorks’s efforts, Rango plays out like a quixotic attempt to approach the breathless storytelling and wit that Pixar has become known for. In this case, the story becomes more scatterbrained and on the nose as the film goes on, but the film does make plenty of use of Verbinski’s stronger faculties as a director comfortable with a big budget. The action sequences are often dazzling in their busy, brilliantly choreographed mayhem, especially a stunning chase in which Rango’s posse is chased back to Dirt by an extended family of desert varmints, led by the decrepit Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton). And a battle between Rango and a steel-beaked eagle in town speaks to the film’s positives far more than any of the dramatic tests of will that Rango must endure at the hands of Dirt’s corrupt mayor (Ned Beatty), his right-hand lizard (Ray Winstone), or a menacing outlaw rattlesnake (Bill Nighy).
Perhaps because of these conflicting issues, Rango does ultimately register as a sort of oddity in the animated landscape, which makes it preferable to a large amount of big-studio releases, but does not necessarily make it a successful film. Verbinski’s deepest creative flaw ends up being that of uneasy tone, and no matter how many times he succeeds in summoning a sense of community or a bite of existential dread, there’s always hesitancy to every decision made, a need to connect to both die-hard western fans and the Madagascar crowd. The filmmaker, in fact, did a far better melding of genres with his underrated first feature, Mousehunt, which was equal parts children’s Christmas parable and physical comedy a la Laurel & Hardy, if not Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Both films highlight Verbinski’s fascination with invention and ritual, but he lets that fascination roam wild in Mousehunt. With Rango, invention is just a plaything at the mercy of story structure and unkempt mood, a divergence that leans toward artifice rather than art, not unlike the film itself.
Paramount has pulled out every single stop for its 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of Rango, and it’s exactly the sort of film where the stunning level of attention given by those working on the transfer shines brightest. Varying types of skin, hair, clothing, weapons, and accessories show incredible detail, as do such minor sights as the planks of wood that make up the buildings, the glass window in the mayor’s office and a brief glimpse at Las Vegas. Colors are myriad and look spectacular, with whites, tans, browns, and blacks dominating but getting punctuated by a patch of green skin, locks of red hair, or a pink tongue. There are no traces of digital manipulation at all and the film maintains a healthy level of grain throughout. The audio is very nearly as brilliant, especially considering how it frequently vollies between echoing silences and a dense mix of dialogue, music, and low-end noise. Music and effects are about as crisp as you’re likely to hear this year, though never overwhelm the eccentric dialogue on the lossless soundtrack. Atmospherics on the low-end are captured wonderfully and there is fullness to the smartly balanced mix that can’t be overstated. This is an astonishingly well-done disc.
The best thing here is the commentary, which features director Gore Verbinski, head of story James Ward Byrkit, and production designer Mark "Crash" McCreery among other voices. This is a lively listen, full of genuine insights into the animation process and plenty of anecdotes to pass around about the actors and the loopy atmosphere of the production. There’s a two-part featurette on the making of the film that’s thoroughly entertaining, but only really interesting in fits and starts. The deleted scenes are largely forgettable, but there’s a neat kid-centric educational featurette that shows the animals that many of the creatures of Rango were based on. The two features, one of which employs picture-in-picture to compare storyboard and finished product, are enjoyable but don’t hold up for longer than 30 minutes of the film or so. A trailer and DVD copy of the film are also included.
An intriguing mess of a film with genres and templates colliding at every turn, Rango receives an excellent audio/visual treatment and some solid extras from Paramount.