Rango is possibly one of the best animated films I’ve seen–it’s absolutely in my top 5. It’s intelligent, absolutely stunning, and hysterical.
Johnny Depp loses himself in the role of the Chameleon With No Name who goes on a journey to self-discovery. It features a well-crafted blend of the basic aspects of Joseph Campbell‘s archetypal Hero Quest, as well as the traditional Western role of the unnamed wandering hero (which stems further back to Akira Kurosawa‘s Yojimbo–a great film that inspired Clint Eastwood‘s later character).
He starts out as a lonely, unnamed chameleon, he says, “Well, I’m a man of many epithets. There’s my stage name, my pen name, my avatar; I’m actually one of the few men with a maiden name.” He has no true, singular identity of his own. He is simply called “the lizard,” “the stranger,” and “the hero” throughout.
Due to circumstances beyond his control, is flung out of his cozy life in a precariously perched aquarium on the back seat of a car (which he shares with a toy fish, a palm tree, and a headless Barbie) and into the middle of the road. There, he encounters a wizened old Armadillo, lying in the middle of the road in the desert. He has been trying to get to the other side–to cross the threshold into adventure. The Armadillo acts as the Chameleon’s Obi-Wan Kenobi—his mentor–and calls him to adventure, cryptically telling him that he has a destiny; he must find water, and where there is dirt there is water.
Following this, he steps off of the road and into the unknown, dangerous desert–a conscious crossing of the threshold into the Belly of the Whale as he takes the first intentional step on this journey. Essentially, this is the conscious choice to enter dangerous territory, from which he may not return. He is immediately pursued by a bird of prey, and he learns that he has a long way to go on his journey. As he escapes, he meets The Woman, Beans (Isla Fisher), with whom he gets along, albeit tenuously. The film even references “sirens of ancient times, luring him to his certain demise,” which is the role that the main woman–whether consciously or not–often plays. The real problem is introduced, outside of his own personal quest–the town, called Dirt, is running out of water, and something suspicious is going on.
It is in Dirt where the choice of a Chameleon is perfect–our unnamed protagonist who has no identity of his own enters a saloon and realizes that he can be whoever he wants to be. He practices walking like others in the town, talking like them, then putting on a tough guy act that convinces everyone that he might be their savior. He names himself Rango after seeing the word Durango partially covered with his finger. He clumsily deals with the local ruffians (a la Clint Eastwood and Yojimbo) and is made the sheriff of the town by the Mayor (Ned Beatty). There is something suspicious about this mayor, and it is clear that he is the man to beat–the town’s father figure whom Rango must defeat.
Here, all the pieces are set, and what follows is a series of hilarious adventures with Rango as the sheriff, trying to figure out where the water is, who stole it, forming a posse, and highlighting some brilliant animation and hilarious adventures. Unfortunately, Rango does not succeed in finding the water, and he is kicked out of town by Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), one of the Mayor’s henchmen. This is the embodiment of two aspects from the Road of Trials–the Brother Battle and the Dragon Battle. When Rango first dons his name and boasts spectacular gunplay, he also claims to be Rattlesnake Jake’s brother, so he’s not scared of him.
Driven back into the desert, Rango returns to the place on the road where his journey began, but he begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together and has an epiphany, meeting a clear Clint Eastwood character (voiced by Timothy Olyphant), who encourages him. Crossing the dangerous road, Rango returns to face the most difficult part of his quest to defeat his enemies and win back the water–the Ultimate Boon.
Rango has found himself, made the difficult journey, given hope to his fellow creatures, and acted almost as a Christ-figure in his endless search to help his companions and act as salvation for the town.
Moreover, there is a Mariachi bird quartet which acts as a chorus, narrating and commenting on the film’s events: “And so, the lizard completes his journey from humble beginnings to the legend we sing of today.”
Am I reading too much into this? I think not, as the wizened old Armadillo-mentor says: “It’s a Metaphor.”
I believe that Rango boasts the most vivid animation since Wall-E, and demonstrates that Paramount can now really give Disney and Pixar a run for their money. This was a [nearly] two-hour, laugh-out-loud experience. It was smart, self-referential, kind of trippy at times, but lots of fun.
Watch this, enjoy it!