I saw Rango last weekend and, to put it mildly, it is a strange film. It’s an animated movie starring Johnny Depp as the eponymous hero (he is a chameleon, which is important in exactly one scene and then never mentioned or even alluded to ever again) and directed by Gore Verbinski.
The animation on display in Rango is spectacular. Take the characters’ eyes: they obviously have lenses with reflections and appropriate distortions, they have a sense of liquid coating them and orbs are layered and realistic. I spent a while just marvelling at them and comparing them with the surface layer effect in most other animated films, including Pixar.
The technical excellence continues to the hair and skin textures. Everything on display feels detailed and intricate, leading to a strange hyper reality and feast of detail on display which counters the sometimes sparse plot and relaxed pacing.
This is not a film brimming with jokes. It’s occasionally very funny, but it is not trying to make you laugh every few minutes. The plot is straightforward and often barren but there are some surreal moments. There wasn’t anything I would say is particularly scary for small children but I don’t really think it is aimed at them or something they would necessarily love.
What did seem odd to me was the decision to make Rango a chameleon. Because there is nothing, aside from one scene, that makes use of his abilities and exactly no subtext or running point of the fact he eschews using them. He just happens to be a chameleon just as other creatures happen to be the species they are. No character really gains traits from their species save the mayor, his rattlesnake enforcer and some burrowing animals.
I know I have yet to touch on the plot of the film, but that is symptomatic of the approach the film itself takes: the plot is not really a major component of the film and the influences and pastiches are so clearly obvious that nothing really comes as a surprise. It’s the style and sheer technical prowess on display that makes the film worthwhile.
This is not to say I dislike the plot, you could do much worse: much of it is lifted from Chinatown, there are pastiches of various westerns and a homage to the third Pirates film. Chinatown is a really primal film, with a mythic theme. Rango appropriates it nicely and, although making it obvious, it still gives the film a sense of purpose and overall theme.
So while the plot is minimal it isn’t awful. And the animation is superlative. I will definitely see worse films this year.