When a pet lizard is propelled from the comfort of his fish tank into the middle of a highway, he begins a wild journey towards enlightenment.
A chameleon is that marvellous creature that changes its appearance to blend into its environment, a bit like an actor working in a certain genre. Mix a chameleon with an actor and you get Rango, a very rare animated animal with a voice supplied by Johnny Depp and a destiny mapped out by director and co-writer Gore Verbinski.
When we first meet him, the laid back lizard is a “hero who has yet to enter his own story”. Heralded by a Mariachi Band of four wise sombrero wearing owls, he’s initially undefined and aimless. But when he arrives in the frontier town of Dirt and drinks the local cactus juice, he discovers his mojo and steps up to the role of Rango.
The Dirtodians are a parched lot presided over by a sinister Mayor tortoise voiced by Ned Beatty. Their water supply has all but run out and they need someone to give them hope. Moved by the plight of a young iguana called Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher) and a little mole named Priscilla (Abigail Breslin) Rango accepts the job of Sheriff. But little does he know that the wicked Mayor is the one diverting the water to build a vast desert empire.
Crazy as it seems, this hilarious cartoon has a lot in common with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. It’s theme of manipulating a town’s water supply to make a fortune in real estate elsewhere is straight from that 1974 classic, and the evil Mayor even wears a white hat like John Huston did as L.A’s wicked businessman Noah Cross.
There are also plenty of references to Westerns made by directors like Sam Peckinpah, John Ford and Sergio Leonie. There’s a mythical character called ‘The Spirit of the West’, played by Tim Olyphant, who is a dead ringer for Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in Leonie’s 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars. And just to ramp up the ridiculous a notch, there’s a moment when Rango meets Johnny Depp as Hunter S Thompson’s alter ego Raul Duke in the trippy 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Verbinksi had the idea for this whacky film while directing the Pirates of the Carribean movies in which Depp of course starred as Jack Sparrow. He wrote it with a team of seven other writers over a period of 16 months then spent just 20 days with the actors recording in an atmosphere that Depp describes as being like “regional theatre at its worst”. But with actors like Harry Dean Stanton as Balthazar the blind mole leader , Ray Winstone as Bad Bill the venomous lizard, and Bill Nighy as Jake the rattle snake gunslinger, the results are truly wonderful.
Creature designer Crash McCreery, who also worked on the Pirates movies, created a cast of characters that rise to the occasion, making us laugh and yes, even shed the odd tear. Hats off to the whole team on this highly original, and cleverly referential, Oscar winning animation.
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