In early 2011, I started paying attention to trailers for this bizarre animated feature, a quirky western with a cast of funny animal characters and Johnny Depp as a chameleon that looks as if the artist who conceptualized it took inspiration from Depp’s warped figure on the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas poster. When released later that March, my classmates in middle school at the time talked about it quite a bit, even raving over how strange yet entertaining it was. I find it interesting that despite the praise, the film quickly faded from public consciousness. Such a turn of reaction made me disregard it as just another low grade kids’ cartoon dumped into theaters to satisfy the little ones for a few weekends, especially given the reputation of Nickelodeon Movies’ output in general. However, finally watching it years later made me realize how grossly overlooked this film is. It is a fun parody of the western genre as well as being a visually-arresting experience.
After a nameless pet chameleon is separated from his rather careless owners, he stumbles across a small town full of oddball desert critters, a town in desperate need of water and a new sheriff. To fit in among the crowd, he passes himself off as “Rango,” a tough drifter who, unbeknownst to the unworthy reptile, must prove his worth when the town’s situation becomes too dire. The pathetic protagonist adopting a false identity may be a frequently used trope in an endless amount of films regardless of genre, but the great cast of characters is what keeps the film afloat. Depp’s awkward yet well-meaning performance as the titular unlikely hero is a treat, but it does not stop there: from Isla Fisher as a hot-tempered desert iguana to Abigail Breslin’s precious delivery as an equally as precious cactus mouse, from Ned Beatty’s sleaze as the corrupt tortoise mayor of the town to the late, great Harry Dean Stanton as a mole bank robber, from Gil Birmingham’s meditative tone as a spiritual raven to Bill Nighy as a vicious rattlesnake with a machine gun for a tail. And I mustn’t forget to mention the quartet of mariachi owls who narrate the story (as well as constantly try to predict Rango’s downfall).
This was Industrial Light & Magic’s first fully animated film, and the artists gave it their all after strictly creating visual effects for live-action productions since their 1975 founding. For a CG animated film released over half a decade ago, it looks just as good as the current output of Walt Disney Studios or Pixar if not better in many shots. The wide sunset-drenched desert landscapes as well as night scenes are visual treats to behold, especially for a non-Disney animated film. It is also fascinating to note this was Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski’s intro to animation. After the bloated tiredness of At World’s End four years prior, it’s as if he’s gained room to let out that steam. It shows how much more freedom he has with this medium as well as decent knowledge of the western genre. Of course, there are many homages to the classics of the genre like the Dollars Trilogy as well as Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s affectionate to the films of the past while the twist of having funny animal characters gives it its own feel.
To pinpoint an exact reason for the film’s fall from public consciousness would depend on whom you ask. Some can point the finger at Nickelodeon’s declining reputation, which may have led people to avoid it. I wonder if the film itself knows its audience. The children viewers can have a ball with the more cutesy animal critters. However, some of the more borderline grotesque imagery almost sticks out like a sore thumb, even when still presented in a cartoonish fashion. A moment at the start of the film where Rango stumbles across a roadkill armadillo (fittingly named after the unfortunate accident)—and he’s literally in two pieces lying on the road—was a true shock. It’s rare to see a family-targeted film that really earns its PG rating in that regard.
The rise of popular non-Disney animated films has given us numerous solid titles, yet this being one of the most well-received films at the time, it hid itself just like a chameleon. The mixed tone may be overwhelming for a family film, but the disregard towards it I feel to be unfair. The varied cast of characters, lampooning of westerns, stunning visuals and animation are not to be shunned.