‘Rango’ movie review: Johnny Depp is a chameleon in gloriously strange trip

Despite a family-friendly rating and the presence of quirky animated characters, including a titular chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp, Gore Verbinski’s Rango isn’t really for kids. 

It’s not wholly inappropriate for them, either, but this oddball Western satire, which lifts its plot from Chinatown and directly references a multitude of other films from Apocalypse Now to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, will be most appreciated by cinema-friendly older audiences. 

And for us, it’s a real treat: this is a gloriously strange trip, and a rare studio animated film that reflects a true vision as opposed to a sanitized, carefully packaged product. 

Rango continues 2010’s boon in mainstream animation, and it’s my favorite piece of studio animation since Pixar’s Wall-E (including non-studio fare, though, that honor would go to Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist or Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s My Dog Tulip.) 

Rango is a pet chameleon used to the easy life, living in the beach-like confines of his terrarium and acting out plays amongst his (inanimate) friends, which include half a Barbie doll torso, a dead insect, and a windup toy fish named Mr. Timms. 

But when a near-accident on a stretch of Nevada desert highway sends the lizard flying from his (un)natural habitat, he’s forced to enter the real world for the first time. 

The “real” world, which Rango discovers after taking a trek suggested by a roadkill armadillo (voiced by Alfred Molina), turns out to be Dirt, a stereotypical Western town inhabited by a friendly landowning lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher), a greedy turtle Mayor (Ned Beatty) who’s buying up all the land during a drought, a group of mole bandits lead by Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton), and the menacing Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), amongst other Old West eccentrics. 

The anthropomorphic characters get along, to some degree, but the film doesn’t ignore real-life predator-prey relationships, either; a deadly hawk attempts to catch (and eat) Rango and the other residents, and numerous off-screen deaths occur. 

To compensate for the generally predictable plot, there’s the always-present existential notion that the entire film may be taking place inside the main character’s head. This ain’t your usual studio animation. 

The film is strikingly, beautifully animated; it looks fantastic, despite the often-bizarre character design that sometimes threatens to alienate the audience. 

Rango is the first animated feature produced by visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, and instantly ranks the company within the realm of Pixar. 

Director Verbinski has never been short on style, from Mouse Hunt to The Mexican and his Pirates of the Caribbean pictures, but his slick, cartoonish approach has often distanced himself from the material; he’s found a perfect match in the animated realm of Rango

Working with a A-list team of collaborators, including cinematography consultant Roger Deakins and Hans Zimmer, who provides a twangy Spaghetti Western score, hasn’t hurt, either. 

Bonus: bucking recent trends, this bright, vibrant piece of eye candy is presented in 2D (and only 2D); its gorgeous 2.35:1 visuals put most 3D animated fare to shame.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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