Public Service Announcement: I would like to apologise for the disruption to Film Ha Ha over the last month or so. This was due to the author being extremely busy actually making a film rather than blogging about them. I barely had enough time to watch films, let alone write about them! However, things are winding down now so service should resume as normal :)
Rango is a funny one. In this simple film about a domesticated lizard who gets lost in the desert and ends up discovering an old Western town, there are hints of quiet subversion and a number of witty genre and cine-literate homages and pastiches. Yet it's also a victim of formula: a film unable to break free of the restrictions determined by its high budget peers.
Like a certain Western hero, the chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp has no name. When his glass home falls off his owners' car in the middle of the desert, he seems certain to die of dehydration if the hawks don't get him first. However, he stumbles across a vaguely hillybillish iguana named Beans (Isla Fisher) who reluctantly brings him back to her hometown of Dirt. There, the chameleon decides to craft an elaborate fiction for himself as a hero named Rango. Through a mixture of good luck and fluke, he's appointed as town sheriff almost immediately. It's mere hours before he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy when the town's water supply (the currency of the disheveled animal population) mysteriously disappears...
As far as CGI animations go, this is rather impressive technically. The character designs are admirably removed from the cutesy anthropomorphic animals we're usually forced to endure. The population of the town are admirably horrible creatures: ugly, creepy yet strangely likeable. It's a strong artistic decision, especially given the generally sparse nature of the desert setting. The colour palette is deliciously bright and vibrant, barring suitably dark and eerie nighttime sequences. Under the direction of Gore Verbinksi, there are also a handful of strong setpieces, notably a fun and inventive chase sequence that acts as the film's midpoint.
There's a number of fun film references dotted throughout, too. They aren't as obnoxious or unfunny as the pop-cultural 'jokes' that tend to occupy your typical Dreamworks fare: instead, the references to the likes of Fear & Loathing and Sergio Leone Westerns are there as a fun acknowledgement of the film's influences. The voice work is quite strong too, with a varied cast ranging from Alfred Molina to Timothy Olyphant doing a bang-up job. Only Depp's Rango lacks real aural charisma, instead choosing a tamer take on his Hunter. S Thompson impression.
However, what ultimately holds Rango back is its staunch obedience of a formula that has dominated almost every American animated feature for decades. The plot lacks any surprises: it follows a three-act structure to a fault, with every dramatic beat and complication predictable from the outset. Perhaps it's too much to expect what is, in essence, a children's film to fully break the rules. But given the playfulness and minor rebellion on show elsewhere (the film's owl chorus / narrators even begin and end the film by predicting the protagonist's untimely death) it's a shame it doesn't go the whole hog. It's a continued disappointment that American animation doesn't have the variety the likes of French or Japanese offerings provide. The final act of Rango feels particularly rushed and muddled, all in the name of tidy resolution.
Still, Rango is good fun, and I can already hear many bemoaning my begrudging of a family film for a lack of narrative originality. As a slice of entertainment, Rango definitely does the job through strong art direction and an affection sense of humour. It has a great respect for Western traditions and canon, too. And, to end on a positive note, it's a damn-sight better than Cars 2, and if any American animated film was going to (undeservedly) win an Oscar over its superior foreign competitors, I'm glad it was this one.