RANGO triumphantly trades on the peculiar appeal of the well-executed excursion into the grotesque. Channeling spaghetti westerns, Cervantes, Castaneda, and a dash of CHINATOWN as refracted through the visual sensibilities of Dali, it is a fiendishly clever concretion of high- and low-brow in a story that is both vision quest and farce.
The eponymous and unlikely hero is a chameleon thrust from his lonely sheltered life of captivity spent dreaming up adventures centering on swashbuckle and emotionally troubled heroines into a real life-and-death drama centering on water, or rather the mysterious disappearance thereof. Not that a lack of water is odd in the middle of the Mojave Desert, but when the town of Dirt loses its last trickle, all hope of its continued survival is lost. Rango (Johnny Depp), sent forth on his quest by an armadillo given to metaphors, and rescued from that quest by Beans (Isla Fisher), a comely lizard with a no-nonsense world view given to paralytic fits. Rang re-invents himself on the fly as a gunman of dangerous repute. There is accolade from the towns ragtag denizens. There is also the sheriffs badge and office handed over to him by the sinister mayor (Ned Beatty), a turtle with a voice that rings eerily and perhaps not coincidentally of John Huston, and whose motives for buying up all the useless land in the area should give Rango and the rest of the town pause.
The animation is as inventive, fresh, and intricate as the writing, which is not afraid to toss around words such as phalanges with delightful frequency and no apologies whatsoever. There is an oddly compelling beauty in the way the animators have made little that is conventionally attractive on screen, including Rangos bumpy skin, disproportionate head and schlumpy body. Yet, taken as a whole, there is an artistry that defies that convention and conjures up its own parallel and equally valid standards. That and the hallucinogenic mood, from cactus that seem to morph into rattlesnake tales to the aetherial quality with which the prism-like eyeballs of all concerned are imbued. The level of detail is extraordinary on many levels, rotting teeth, the perfectly choreographed movement of mouths to dialogue, and the wonder of how liquids of all types are rendered, and all around and in them are morphed thereby, underscoring the magical life-giving qualities that they represent.
As for Rango, a reptile of tall tales and little ability beyond spinning them, hes an idiot, but such a sweetly delicate one, so painfully out of his depth that his quest to be admired, or even to stay alive, is irresistible. That his blundering tends to accidentally save the day makes him all the more endearing. Depps voice work is a wonder to listen to, richly nuanced as Depp moves from ridiculous to moving while never losing a delicious archness.
RANGO is an animated film aimed squarely as adults, cutting edge without being pompous about it. Archetypes, primordial and contemporary, are invoked with equal reverence and playfulness while the action is crisp, the writing sprightly, the humor wicked.