A Look Back at “Rango”

by Bill Wine
Posted 9/24/21

Johnny Depp playing a standup chameleon.

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A Look Back at “Rango”


Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

It's Johnny Depp playing a standup chameleon.

He's the voice of the title character in “Rango” (2011), a delightful CGI-animated adventure about a chameleon who, not surprisingly, keeps changing and, also not surprisingly, therefore has somewhat of an identity problem.

"Why blend in when you can stand out?" is the question he poses. And stand out is what he aims to do, while a quartet of short mariachi owls serving as a Greek chorus musically narrates his tall tale.

Rango is a lonely suburban family pet who lives in a domestic terrarium in the American southwest. A wannabe actor, he yearns to be a hero, or at least play a hero, in the Wild West that he has so long fantasized about. 

But this lizard is no wizard. How's he gonna make that happen? 

He gets his chance when circumstances conspire – okay, the writers conspire – to knock his terrarium off the back of a car in the middle of the Mojave Desert and plunk him down in a western town called Dirt, which is populated by rodents, reptiles, and rowdy desert critters dressed up like the standard characters in a western flick.

So the previously sheltered Rango becomes, almost by accident, the gunslinging sheriff of Dirt –  an example of the Peter Principle if ever there were one  –  and, as their hero (because every story needs one), leads the parched Dirtonians to solve the mystery of their current drought.

Also along for the voiceover ride are Isla Fisher as Beans, an independent-minded iguana; Alfred Molina as the intriguingly and appropriately named armadillo, Roadkill; Abigail Breslin as a tell-it-like-it-is, height-challenged cactus mouse; Bill Nighy as the villainous Rattlesnake Jake; Ned Beatty as the manipulative tortoise Mayor; and Timothy Olyphant as the Eastwoodian Spirit of the West.

This is a departure for Gore Verbinski, who takes a crack at directing animation after delivering the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy (starring Depp). Verbinski gathered his actors together to record their dialogue opposite each other, in a manner similar to that of Wes Anderson, who did the same thing for “Fantastic Mr. Fox” –  as opposed to many animated projects, for which isolated performers record their dialogue individually – bringing a level of interactive ensemble energy to their exchanges that gives the film a little extra juice.

Verbinski is sometimes enamored of his own Sergio Leone-inspired technique to a fault in extended action sequences, but his film never seems less than a true labor of love. He also co-produced and co-wrote the story that provides the basis for John Logan's screenplay, which is literate and clever and funny (and sometimes mildly, tastefully suggestive), borrowing a major plot point from “Chinatown” and making splendid use of the standard conventions of the western genre, sprinkling the script with movie in-jokes in ways that grownups who have clocked lots of “howdy-pahdner” mileage will appreciate much more than new-to-the-wild-west children.

But the kids needn't worry. There are inspired sight gags and gloriously silly slapstick spurts galore, and Depp's comedic sensibility and witty line readings bring his character to winning, vibrant, giggly life.

This quirkily funny, beautifully crafted, and bracingly entertaining PG-rated family 'toon is certainly not just for the wee ones. Folks of age who fondly recall their hours and hours in front of big-screen and small-screen westerns will get an even bigger bang-o out of “Rango.”

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.