Haunted by the ghosts of Leone, Peckinpah, and Dali, Gore Verbinski’s wild animated romp Rango turns an assembly line of classic western themes and iconography into a bustlingly fresh genre ecosystem. This arid desert spectrum focuses on the details of western costume and setting while melding in heightened notes of evocative surrealism, expanding the film’s aesthetic depth beyond the reaches of the frame. The expected children’s film elements, including shameless slapstick comedy, kinetic chase sequences, and high-noon standoffs, become intertwined with the darker tones insinuating the deep cost of collective delusion within a dying frontier community. This sly mixture of character and subtext elevates Rango above recent irony-laden fare like Gnomeo & Juliet.
Borders and perimeters are always crucial to the western, but Verbinski initially deconstructs the notion of physical thresholds in the film’s opening sequence, introducing the titular lizard thespian Rango (Johnny Depp) acting out his own passion play in the back seat of his master’s car. As Rango uses a headless doll for a heroine and a wind-up fish toy and a palm tree as fellow actors in his theatrical cage, it’s clear this fantasy world contains deep layers of self-deception. When a near accident sends his glass prison out the back window splintering it into a thousand pieces on the hot pavement, Rango finds himself alone in the desert, confronted with a three-dimensional world where life and death consequences get juxtaposed with nostalgia and mythology.
This larger enclosure of extreme elements and ideological uncertainty proves to be a disjointed place for Rango, with many images splitting and contorting to mimic his evolving desperation. This motif begins with a partially crushed armadillo named Roadkill (Alfred Molina), who despite a mortal injury advises Rango to find “the spirit of the west” because “we all have journeys to make.” It’s a cohesive and classic creed that lingers with the lizard as he crosses the desert, pushing through vivid hallucinations about his past and violent brushes with predators swooping from above. When Rango eventually ends up in the town of Dirt, a brilliantly dirty landscape of western architecture and animal archetypes (rats in sombreros, possums in Sunday suits, etc.) slowly crumbling from an endless drought, he’s quickly assimilated into the western mise-en-scène, becoming the town’s puppet sheriff and self-imposed hero.
Rango’s early victories against violent predators (a lethal hawk, bandits) are entirely accidental, Verbinski seeing them as mere test runs for his more important battle against unseen corruption crippling the town from the inside out. The powerful mayor (Ned Beatty) promises the dwindling populace a future of growth and stability, but Rango’s presence ultimately threatens the powerful elite’s ultimate plans for modernization. The film’s climax of double barrel shot guns, six shooters, and gatling guns pays homage to The Wild Bunch, but the action always remains secondary to the consistently striking dream-like imagery. Rango’s hallucinatory vision of Eastwood’s Man With No Name (voiced by Timothy Olyphant) is a stunning example of the film’s potent need to revel in the hypnotic aura of genre and film history. “It’s the deed that makes the man,” he grumbles to the lizard, firmly connecting Rango with the western codes of sacrifice. In this world, heroism is more than a just an interior conflict, it’s a collective duty.
Unfortunately, Rango stretches plot points to their breaking point, spending far too much time on tangential conversations like those between Rango and his love interest Beans (Isla Fisher). This bogs down the film when it should be speeding up. Even worse, an annoying Greek chorus of mariachi owls is inserted for laughs during transitional scenes, and it’s the only time Rango feels dumbed-down for easy consumption. There are times when Depp’s manic performance becomes unhinged, and like their collaborations on the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Verbinski can’t rein in his tiresome wacky schtick. Thankfully, there are clever odes to the aerial assault in Apocalypse Now, the water/power motif in Chinatown, and Hunter S. Thompson’s drugged tirade across the desert in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that add texture to the film’s often messy narrative.
Verbinski fails to consistently merge Rango’s many chaotic moving parts, but he creates enough striking individual moments to make Rango a thematically relevant western/animated mosaic. The final image of Dirt being ripped apart by powerful streams of water attains a surprising resonance that goes hand in hand with the finest western traditions of growth, adaptation, and evolution. This finale sends Rango, Beans, and the rest of the posse off into a worthy sunset, inhabiting a western place where no man (or lizard) worth their salt will dare walk out on their own blossoming origin story.