At a time when mainstream Hollywood product is becoming ever more homogenous and unimaginative, the very fact that a film like Rango has been released should be a reason for good cheer, regardless of the quality of the film itself. Clearly taking the opportunity to cash in some of their Pirates of the Caribbean chips, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp have come up something genuinely adventurous and distinctive; an animated film, ostensibly aimed at children, which draws its inspiration from Sergio Leone, Chinatown, Hunter S. Thompson and Dead Man. Having played Thompson and starred in Dead Man, Johnny Depp feels like a natural fit for the title character, a domesticated chameleon who finds himself stranded in the desert and fighting for his life. He ends up in a town called Dirt, ruled over by a Noah Cross-like turtle, and after a few contrivances, he is appointed sheriff and must "become the hero of his own story," as the band of mariachi owls that occasionally comments upon the action informs us.
It's hard to define exactly what tone Verbinski and his screenwriter John Logan are going for here. The movie simultaneously offers us a hefty dose of dry humour, existential angst and large-scale action sequences; an unusual brew that often leaves the film feeling rather lopsided. The central narrative, in which Rango must become a hero, solve the mystery of Dirt's missing water supply, and win the heart of Beans (Isla Fisher) is the film's single weakest element and the story unfortunately runs dry – no pun intended – long before the movie comes to a close. Aside from that central flaw, however, Rango is something of a demented delight. It is a triumph of design and animation, with the visual work provided by Industrial Light and Magic making this one of the most aesthetically astonishing animated films I've ever seen. The level of detail in the characters and their photorealistic surroundings is consistently staggering, and the muted palette Verbinski opts for – again, taking the animation road less travelled – is quite beautiful.
There has clearly been a great deal of attention lavished on Rango, and the performers hired to give voice to their characters all pull their weight too. It's starry cast, but I hardly recognised most of them as their voices are such a natural fit for their roles, and top marks go to Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Abigail Breslin and Alfred Molina. Rango is funny, strange and rather bold, and those qualities outweigh its less well-developed aspects, but it does pose the vexing question: just who is this movie for? I fear it may bore/confused younger viewers, and some adults may be nonplussed by its inconsistent nature and sense of humour; after all, it's a rare family animation that dares to deliver a line like, "I once found a human spinal cord in my fecal matter." Nevertheless, I'd implore audiences to give it a try. Rango is not the kind of mainstream film that instantly appears to be playing for a sequel or franchise (heck, it's not even in 3D), and for that reason alone, it deserves our attention.