It is always a fun experience to be pleasantly surprised by a movie. It’s something that doesn’t happen to me terribly often, especially in the world of animation these days, but when it does it always manages to bring a smile to my face and brighten my day just ever so slightly. In particular with children and family animation, it takes quite a lot for me to consider myself “surprised” and even more to consider the surprise to be a pleasant one. There is a degree of cliché and formula that has become frustratingly synonymous with animation, and it’s always nice to see something rise above it.
With that in mind, I was not pleasantly surprised by Rango. I was pleasantly blown away.
I should start by pointing out that though it has been advertised as a children’s movie, it’s not something you’d want to bring a little kid to. If your child is young and faint at heart, there are some really scary images and a good amount of violence that could potentially scar them for life. If your child, however, is in that bizarre age group of around nine to thirteen years old, and is craving a slightly smarter, slightly more dangerous type of movie than what’s generally available to them, then Rango is perfect. It’s also good for anyone over thirteen. And really, anyone who’s interested in a genuinely good movie.
Let’s start with the story. Rango is both a lush tribute to the Hollywood western and the story of one lizard’s existential crisis. Our main character, played by the always entertaining Johnny Depp, begins the film with literally no identity, creating elaborate fantasies for himself in his glass tank, but eventually turning to the audience and wondering who he is. We never learn the character’s real name, only the one he eventually adopts, Rango, and we are thus left with a fun, but ultimately still enigmatic protagonist. A good portion of the film is devoted to Rango’s search for a complete personality, and the unpredictability of this leaves you constantly wondering what the character is going to do next.
The film is narrated by a group of Mariachi owls acting as a Greek chorus. This is considerably less bizarre than it sounds. The way the group is woven into the story is particularly clever, and is a shining example of how this type of narration is supposed to be done.
The rest of the film follows a basic western formula, taking the route of Blazing Saddles by being simultaneously hysterical, exciting, and true to its story. The film has some of the best dialogue I’ve ever heard in an animated film, as well as some of the best characterizations this side of Toy Story 3.
But of course, the story is only one part of what makes this movie amazing. This is a beautiful film. It manages to be visually stunning without the use of 3D, masterfully constructing every single shot to near perfection. Industrial Light and Magic, already famous for their special effects, has outdone themselves with their first animated feature. Everything is painstakingly detailed while still managing to look cartoony and fun.
A particular example of the film’s artistry is a sequence that when described on paper sounds extremely simple. Just before the climax of the story, Rango crosses a road. In a perfect example of how writing meets art in filmmaking, this simple act is given such narrative significance that it’s just as thrilling as any action scene and the visuals that accompany it are some of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen animated. Perfectly edited, composed, and scored, the sequence is visually spectacular, and proves that you don’t need 3D for a movie to feel three dimensional.
If you weren’t already convinced by writing and visuals alone that the film is more than just a standard kid’s movie, take a moment to Google some of Hans Zimmer’s score, in particular, Rango’s old school Western theme song. Making yet another comparison to Blazing Saddles, the score is rich and beautifully evokes every Hollywood western you’ve ever seen while still managing to have it’s own sound.
This film is one that, I hope, goes down as a classic. It’s smart and fun, deathly serious when it needs to be, and hysterical when it wants to be. It’s something for those sick of predictable kid’s movies and lazy writing. It proves what can be done when the medium of children’s animation is pushed to it’s absolute limits, and of course, proves that not all animation must be 3D to be worth seeing. Go see this film. Take your bravest kids, and seriously, you’ll enjoy it more than you know.
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Written by John Logan
Animation by Industrial Light and Magic
With the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, and Bill Nighy
107 Minutes, PG