I've been mulling over what to say about Gore Verbinski's first foray into feature animation. Like it's main character it has so many dual identities. Its photoreal animation is a truly original, while its script seems cobbled together from dozens of at right angle sources. The film has adult ideas that few American animated films ever have, but it seems lost at what audience it's really targeting. It's a Western. It's a comedy. It's an existential examination.
A chameleon with no name, who sounds like Johnny Depp doing Don Knotts, is trying to find his muse in a Beckett-esque performance for himself in his terrarium. Then he hits a bump along the road, literally. His tank is thrust out of the back of his owner's car along a desert highway. A squished mystic armadillo called Roadkill (Alfred Molina, SPIDER-MAN 2) tells him to go out into the desert and that everyone needs to cross the road at some point.
After narrowly escaping a hawk, he runs into Miss Beans (Isla Fisher, THE LOOKOUT), who lives in a frontier town called Dirt, which is undergoing a water crisis. She, like the rest of the town, doesn't take kindly to strangers, so the chameleon tries to fit in by posing as a notorious gunslinger named Rango. His tales of killing seven men with one bullet draw the attention of the town's turtle Mayor (Ned Beatty, DELIVERENCE), who makes him sheriff in order to keep Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) away. Along with Beans and the other denizens of Dirt, he makes it his own mission to discover who is dumping water in the desert.
Depp makes Rango a bit squirrelly, which makes him vastly entertaining. His developing romance with Beans, a lizard that has a problem with freezing up completely at random times, is quirky and sweet. The film is populated with a host of strange characters. One could say too many characters, but they're so interesting to look at who would you cut?
There's a Greek chorus of Mariachi Owls. Their accordion player, Senor Flan (George DelHoyo, TV's DAYS OF OUR LIVES), constantly reminds us that Rango is going to die. Priscilla (Abigail Breslin, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE), the schoolgirl mouse, develops a liking for Rango much like the little boy in SHANE did for his gunslinger. Rango's posse is filled with a wild-eyed lizard, one-eared rabbit, a prospector mouse, an Indian chief crow and a bird who wears a Civil War uniform and has an arrow through his eye and out the back of his head. There's the town thug Bad Bill (Ray Winstone, BEOWULF) and his men and then the blind mole Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton, TV's BIG LOVE) and his inbred rodents.
VFX vets Industrial Light & Magic make the transition to a fully animated feature with ease and panache. This film is amazing to look at. The action sequences are epically staged and impeccably paced. The character animation is equal parts subtle and outlandish. The character designs are a thing of inspiration, brought to life through amazing lighting, thanks in part to cinematographer Roger Deakins assisting as a virtual DP. Some celebrity cameos appear in the caricatured style of Sebastian Kruger, which is surreal in photoreal CG.
Now on with the story. Rango's vision quest at the start and the Western legend riff seem like separate stories and never mesh well. John Logan's script liberally borrows from Sergio Leone, John Ford and dozens of Westerns, as well as Hunter S. Thompson and a distracting amount from CHINATOWN. The whole idea of an inept actor posing as a Western hero seems too much like THREE AMIGOS anyway.
So why recommend it if the story is a mess. Because there isn't anything like it. The oddity of the whole adventure is part of its charm. You could easily argue that the whole thing once Rango hits the pavement is a FEARING AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS headtrip. Thus the mix-matched plot threads are just the Id of its main character unfolding in front of us. This idea came from an American animated feature from Nickelodeon Movies. You gotta see it to believe it.