WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
A pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) with Broadway ambitions has his easy family life shattered – along with his vivarium – in a motorway accident.
Finding himself stranded in the searing sunshine alongside a dessert freeway, he takes directions from an armadillo (Alfred Molina) on how to get to the nearest town.
He arrives to find a western-style, one-horse town that’s as dry and corrupt as its name – Dirt.
Walking into the saloon, an assortment of lizards, reptiles and mini-mammals pour scorn on him when he asks for water but develop a fearful respect for the stranger when he brands himself Rango and claims to have killed a gang of local outlaws with one bullet.
Needing a hero, a figure to inspire hope, the aged tortoise mayor (Ned Beatty) appoints Rango as Sheriff. His main job is to guard the bank which is looking after what little water remains.
Soon, Rango’s authority is challenged when he finds himself leading a posse of townsfolk into the dessert to track a bunch of robbers.
Will the residents of Dirt fall in behind the alliance of the mayor and his chief henchman, the ruthless rattle-snake (Bill Nighy) or can the crafty chameleon win them around and restore water to a community thirsty for leadership and honour.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
There are some films about animals in which they rule the roost – they run the show – the humans don’t even exist. There are others where the animals live their own lives alongside their human counterparts. In others, the humans and animals interact.
But in Rango, what begins as the kind of film where the animals exist against the backdrop of the human world – he’s a family pet – turns into the kind of story where humans don’t even exist; by the end of the film, we discover that not only do animals have their own towns, they even build cities for humans.
Obviously this is not a true story, so the writers can make up whatever they like, but for it to feel like a coherent tale, surely the humans either exist or they don’t – it’s a human world, an animal world or a shared world but it can’t flip between them. Such a basic concept as the ownership of the world should at least remain consistent.
Consistency is also a problem with the antagonists – there are too many to know who to be booing – in the end, it’s just easier to root for Rango and throw popcorn at everyone else.
Another weakness is that difficult issue of the target audience. Children will like the funny faces and varied voices and the animation is visually appealing, but the story will go way over their heads, not least because there are so many characters. And with references to everything from classic westerns to Depp’s own movies – not to mention the way it draws parallels between Dirt’s water shortage and our credit crisis (Rango pretty much shouts “We’re all in this together” as the water supply runs low), there’s more in it for adults than their children. Some gags are so adult, if children ask for an explanation, there could be some awkward, embarrassed silences.
But on the surface, the story itself is far too childish and simplistic to appeal to a primarily adult audience. Even a love interest seems tacked on to keep Mum and Dad watching, when it’s really the kids themselves who need more toilet humour and visual gags to keep them on board.
Perhaps the characters needed to be more cute; how many kids will want to cuddle up to reptiles or rats? And try to keep children in their seats for more than an hour and three quarters – on the long side for an animated feature that has more to offer their parents.
Furthermore, how many adults would be seen dead going to see a PG-rated animation without taking any children along?
Having said all that, it’s a worthy enough cause to simplify the economic situation and teach children such qualities as honour, responsibility and trust in a sprightly and entertaining fashion.
And the voicework from the actors brings the critters off the screen – Depp’s eccentricity comes as much to life in the body of a chameleon as it does when he appears in human form and the likes of Ned Beatty, Bill Nighy and Ray Winstone add gravitas to their roles. It’s a shame they couldn’t get Clint Eastwood to voice up his own cameo – that honour falls to Timothy Olyphant, who rises to the challenge as the mysterious ‘Spirit of the West.’
It’s also a welcome modern innovation that the film-makers chose to stick to two dimensions and the film is no worse or less enjoyable for it.
There’s much to admire in Rango, but it’s a little too hit and miss to quench your thirst for the next all-round family film.