Review: Verbinski's 'Rango' puts the ugly back in 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'
When first shown the trailer to Nickelodeon Movies' Rango, I was unimpressed. Though the inclusion of Johnny Depp would normally be interesting, I assumed he was just another slumming celebrity voice. And the character designs were a bit offputting. To put it mildly. But the revelation that the director for the movie was Gore Verbinski did pique my interest.
Rango is Verbinski's eighth film; previous work includes such oddities as Mousehunt (which furry fans may be somewhat familiar with), the American remake of The Ring (one of Bravo's "100 Scariest Movie Moments" selections), and the three released Pirates of the Caribbean movies — the third of which made him one of only four directors to gross over a billion dollars at the box office (putting him in the company of Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan and Ursa Major Award-winning James Cameron). In other words, Verbinski is a director to watch.
But does Rango live up to some of his previous works?
Rango tells the story of a pet chameleon (voiced by Depp) who aspires to a life outside the small glass box that is his entire world, only to get his wish when said entire world is shattered after being flung out of a speeding vehicle during a collision with an armadillo named Roadkill (voiced by Alfred Molina). Roadkill (apparently unharmed) points the now marooned chameleon in the direction of Dirt, a town inhabited by numerous desert creatures.
There, when he realizes that these simple desert creatures know absolutely nothing about him, the chameleon reinvents himself as a Western lawman, christening himself Rango. He soon becomes the duly appointed sheriff of Dirt, tackling the problem of the town's dwindling water supply. In the town of Dirt, water is money, and Beans (voiced by Ilsa Fisher), a lizardmarm who farms the last ranch in the area, suspects someone has been stockpiling water in the desert, cutting it off from the town.
Rango forms a posse, and though the movie takes many cues from spaghetti westerns such as Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, most of those cues are from the third adjective. Most of the characters are unrepentedly ugly; a blessed few can be described as cute, and even those are not traditionally cute funny animals. In Dirt, not even the bunnies are cute (though, fortunately, the vixens still are). The good townsfolk of Dirt would be instantly cast as villains in any other cartoon animal movie based on appearances alone.
This is just one of many ways Rango parts company with the usual cartoon fare. Depp may be a name-brand star, but he is still known for taking less mainstream roles. He is the only such name-brand star in the movie, the rest of the parts played by character actors and actual voice actors. Verbinski veteran Bill Nighy's Rattlesnake Jake is the probably the stand out performance; his passable but still slightly off American accent recalls the slightly off (and often dubbed) American accents of the spaghetti westerns.
The movie pays homage to Leone, and it does make occasional pop-cultural references. But these references are far stranger (and darker) than the average animated movie's. Movies nodded at include Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Apocalypse Now and what I'm almost positive is an extended allusion to The Hills Have Eyes. The music also is full of homage; some the best jokes revolve around music. An out of the way tribe of gophers enjoy playing the banjo. They do not play "Dueling Banjoes." And it is awesome.
One area where Rango does stick closer to the more traditional mode of cartoon animals is the realm of slapstick. Anyone who has seen Mousehunt or the second Pirates of the Caribbean should know that Verbinski can do slapstick. Those were live action movies; this is a cartoon. The slapstick action is superb; a chase scene involving a water barrel bearing covered wagon and a swarm of bats is a standout, not only for the movie, but for the entire animated medium.
In the final analysis, this is a movie that furries should go and see, despite the fact that many may find the ugly character designs extremely offputting. But the harsh ugliness is, probably, the best reason to see it. This movie dares to be different; the better its performance at the box office, the greater the chance that anthropomorphic animal movies of a different nature will be greenlit. That's something furries should be able to get behind.