Rango is something of an animated anomaly. Released in 2011 by Nickelodeon Pictures (if you can believe it), directed by a usually live-action filmmaker (Gore Verbinski, of Pirates of the Caribbean fame), with animation by visual effects studio Industrial Lights and Magic. Rango is an American animated film aimed more at the adult movie buff, but is still kid-friendly enough to not be completely niche. Even watching it today, a decade after its release, Rango still feels like a delightfully surreal experience. One that, sadly, the movie world hasn’t really seen since.
Rango tells the story of a pet chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp), who prides himself as something of a thespian, though that might be a cover for his ongoing identity crises. The chameleon’s life gets thrown into chaos when his terrarium flies out of his owner’s car during an accident, stranding him in the desert. He meets the cause of the accident, a sagely armadillo named Roadkill (Alfred Molina), who points the chameleon in the right direction to survive the brutal heat of the desert.
The chameleon eventually finds himself in the old west-style town of Dirt, populated by various desert animals. Realizing being a stranger in a new place is the opportunity to “be anyone” that he’s been looking for, the chameleon takes on the name ‘Rango,’ and concocts an elaborate backstory as a badass gunslinger who can take on anyone and anything, which the town humorously accepts with very little question.
The newly-named Rango is quickly put to the test when a hawk invades the town. Due to sheer luck, Rango survives the encounter with the hawk, with the townsfolk comically interpreting his bumbling and lucky circumstances as some kind of ingenious strategy. So the people of dirt arrange for Rango to meet the mayor (a tortoise voiced by Ned Beatty), who appoints Rango as the new sheriff of Dirt.
But all is not well in Dirt, as the town has been suffering a severe draught, to the point that the townsfolk have resorted to using water as currency (even depositing water into their local bank). The water used to flow into the town every Wednesday, but it has suddenly stopped. A local woman – a desert iguana named Beans (Isla Fisher) – has noticed water being dumped in the desert, and suspects a conspiracy. She and Rango then set out to investigate the cause of the missing water. Meanwhile, an additional threat looms over Dirt. With his natural predator the hawk dead, notorious outlaw Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) might return to Dirt.
Honestly, any synopsis I give can’t do Rango justice. It’s a Blazing Saddles-style western spoof while simultaneously being a genuine western in the vein of Sergio Leone. It’s an animated film with talking animals in which none of the animals are ever made to be cute (in fact, they’re wonderfully ugly). And it’s filled with enough movie references to make Quentin Tarantino blush.
Even ten years later, the animation of Rango is something to behold. The film finds the perfect balance of making things look both realistic and caricatured. Take, for example, Rango himself. His finer details (such as his scales) evoke a real chameleon, but his eyes are comically asymmetrical, and his crooked pencil neck should not be able to carry that bulbous head of his. There’s a lot of imagination at work in the character designs in making them weird, gross and interesting. It’s just a fascinating film to look at, and the results are still captivating a decade on.
The biggest joys of Rango, however, are the characters and writing. The voice acting is top notch (with Bill Nighy being a particular highlight, making Rattlesnake Jake a truly memorable villain despite relatively little screen time). Rango is a funny film, but in a much different way than most animated fare. There’s no particular comic sidekick designed to be the fan favorite, instead, the film manages to squeeze humor out of all of its characters (sans the villains, who are dead serious), no matter how small and inconsequential their part may be in the story. While there is some slapstick at play, most of the humor in Rango stems from the characters themselves. Whether it’s their eccentric personalities (Rango’s dimwittedness being mistaken for heroism is another highlight) or just the strange things they say (“It’s like a puzzle! Like a big mammogram!”), Rango’s is an off-beat sense of humor that still stands out.
That’s one of the best things about Rango: It’s intrinsically funny because of its weirdness. Sure, there’s still some bathroom humor and the occasional wink to the adult crowd, but it never feels reliant on such things in the same way a lot of modern animated comedy does. The film could bring out a smile or laugh out of someone simply by the way it and its characters go about things (such as Dirt’s weekly ritual of celebrating the arrival of water, which includes the townsfolk dancing and slapping each other, because why not). It’s funny by being itself, which is always a rare treat for any movie.
Despite garnering critical acclaim, Rango never quite caught on. It seems to have fallen a bit into obscurity these past ten years, being remembered for winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (and not being a Pixar movie) but rarely being brought up outside of that piece of trivia. That’s a real shame, because Rango was certainly one of the more original animated films to come out of the early 2010s (scratch that, one of the more original films of that timeframe, period). Studios and filmmakers would have done themselves well to take a page or two from its book.
I like that Rango exists in this weird space where it’s like the adult version of a kids’ movie. It’s aimed at the older crowd but isn’t really inappropriate for kids, either (maybe a bit scary for younger children at certain points). It’s an animated film that respects its audience, young and old, and doesn’t feel like it needs to dumb itself down for the former or lazily fall back on sexual innuendo for the latter. I honestly don’t know why such a concept is as hard to find in western animation as it is.
Rango may not quite be an animated masterpiece (the more dramatic aspects of Rango’s journey of self-discovery can get a little lost in the silliness), but it is a consistently fun and funny motion picture that deserves far more attention than it gets. It’s stunningly animated (its craftsmanship making its ugly characters somehow beautiful to see in motion), complete with some great action sequences. And its personality is entirely its own.
Rango isn’t really a kids’ movie, but it isn’t exclusively for adults. It’s just a movie. And a pretty great one. How about that?