The Lizard with No Name, by Scott Nye
Full disclosure – when confronted with the prospect of an animated movie featuring amazing character designs and interesting actors that tells the story of a domestic lizard reinventing himself as a gunslinger in an Old West town full of small animals that is equal parts spaghetti western, Chinatown, and stoner movie (though I am not one for the weed, I have an odd affinity for stoner movies), I’m going to be a little predisposed to liking it.
But enough about me. The point is, I liked the movie an awful lot, but will totally admit that it is not a drink that’ll go down as well for everyone else.
Rango is one of my favorite kinds of movies – the kind its protagonist wants to star in. In the opening, we see Rango (though that’s only a name he gives himself later – his actual name is unknown) trapped in a pet tank in the back of a station wagon putting on a play starring himself, a half-broken doll, a dead insect, and a fish toy. He yearns for adventure, and right when he says his story needs some catalyst to throw the hero (himself) into action, the station wagon swerves, throwing him from the trunk and, indeed, setting him off on his adventure. I’m sure there are people out there ready to say that from this point on, the whole film is in Rango’s imagination, and that’s a perfectly fine- if terribly boring- take on what I mean when I say Rango is the most its protagonist would make.
The freeway sequence is one of several truly spectacular action set pieces, and director Gore Verbinski (director of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, though not its forthcoming fourth installment) relishes the total freedom of animation with every moment. It’s fast-paced, physically impossible, and exhilarating. I’m actually a pretty big fan of the Pirates films (yes, all three of them) for their relentless imagination and willingness to embrace a very silly kind of action, and Verbinski consistently nailed exactly the right tone for the film’s many movements. They were fun in an era when most action-adventure movies are terribly laborious and serious.
Rango is all of the fun of the Pirates movies cranked way up. Rango gets to go through a water conspiracy plot lifted straight from Chinatown by way of Sergio Leone, and if the movie wasn’t so silly and stream-of-consciousness, I’d knock screenwriter John Logan for ripping that stuff whole cloth. But he and Verbinski strike just the right tone, and you can sort of feel Rango’s spirit making it up as it goes along (and what if the Mayor was a turtle who sounded just like Noah Cross?! And what if The Man With No Name showed up as the voice of wisdom?). It’s wonderfully inventive even while it’s using familiar devices.
A lot of that energy comes from the cast, who Verbinski has turned loose. He used an expanded version of the process Wes Anderson used to record the voice work for Fantastic Mr. Fox, and with two films to prove it, the difference is considerable. Both had the actors act out the scenes live (Anderson took them to a farm, and Verbinski used a studio) and used those audio tracks. It’s different than motion capture in that their physical movements don’t define what the characters do, but they provide a starting place. Johnny Depp is on fire here, using his current tendency towards caricature for a fitting place – total silliness. There’s no emotional center for Rango (although the film ill-advisedly tries to saddle him with one at the end of the second act) and Depp plays it well.
The supporting cast, a formidable team that includes Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ray Winstone, who unsurprisingly prove to be a terrific ensemble. I don’t like to say “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” but one thing the movies used to do really well that they hardly do at all nowadays is giving us strong characters regardless of their importance to the story. Rango reverses that trend; each character could at least carry a short film, if not a feature.
This was a really great move for Verbinski. After being held down by studio expectations and a grueling production schedule (can you imagine spending a straight year making two Pirates films?), Verbinski set his id loose on a small(ish) personal project. I’d love to see more directors try the same.