1. You didn’t see it coming. Not literally, of course. You probably saw a trailer or a poster with a lizard on it at some point in the last 6 months. And you might have heard that it was “a bit quirky” or something like that. But Hollywood quirky tends to mean having one character look a bit like a goth, or talk with a funny accent. Rango has funny accents, and I think one of the critters looks a bit like a goth, but it also has a spindly plot structure that ducks and weaves as it seeks out a consistent story that’ll hang together. It gets there, and there’s a tinge of disappointment when it turns into a more conventional quest and chase film, but you still get to see that rarest of commodities, a film with ideas, and an urgent desire to throw them at you.
2. How very meta. Powerless to resist the transformation of “meta-” from lowly prefix to free-standing, if shaky-legged, adjective, I find myself using it at the start of the sentence – look back at the start of this sentence! Good, now you’re back here at the next sentence, reading this illustration-by-example of what “meta” means. Anyway, it’s overused as a way of talking about the self-reflexivity of a book or a film, but you’ll find few films this year that trouble the needle of your meta detector more than Rango manages in its opening scenes. Beginning with a lizard in search of a story, a characterless blank looking for his metier, the film pins down its core metaphor of what it is to be a chameleon in seconds, and thus barely needs to hammer said metaphor home over the course of the next 100 minutes. Rango gradually acts his way into a genre setting and story through mimicry and learned behaviours, but at a time when kids’ films seem obliged to spin some message about not conforming, being yourself etc., Rango celebrates the paradoxical comforts of finding a place where you belong, the joys of fitting in. Of course, Rango tries too hard to fit in and compromises himself and others in the process, but he still knows that there’s no shame in being part of a group you enjoy being part of.
3. It’s not in 3-D. I was not a 3-D skeptic – I actually quite enjoyed the novelty period, when it looked like cinema had a new toy to play with, and it wanted to show you its new tricks. But then the cynical rot set in, after one too many post-op monstrosities tarnished our screens with their ersatz, dimensionalised messes (Clash of the Titans was the one that killed it for me). The advantage for Rango is that the lack of “depth” means that it makes full use of the width of the screen, focusing on the arrangement of objects and figures across the frame instead of mashing them up into some blurry, front-to-back eye-test aesthetic.
4. Most of its pop-culture references are pre-1970. It is de rigeur for your common-or-garden animated feature to incorporate a conveyor belt of nods, winks and homages to whatever seems to be “hip”at that moment (and yes, I know that using the word “hip” disqualifies one from being hip). But within its first 20 minutes, Rango crams in tributes to Don Quixote, Samuel Beckett, Sergio Leone and Salvador Dali. While other cartoons are content to toss the bone (fnar) of sexual innuendo to adult audiences to reward them for chaperoning the kids to the cinema, this film collapses the boundary between adult and child viewers. There’s a danger that it will all fly pointlessly over the heads of the target audience; it is sophisticated in its cultural touchstones and passionate about them, too, but colourful and barmy enough to excite a childish sense of gleeful play. For those who into all of its references, there’s always that nasty little delight in picturing the faces of dumbfounded few who thought they were getting themselves in for the usual potty-mouths-and-poop-jokes approach that passes for ‘adult animation’ these days.
5. Johnny Depp is not too nauseating. If you’re already an unquestioning fan of Johnny Depp, skip to no.6 straight away: you like what he does, and he does plenty of it in Rango. You don’t need persuading. If, on the other hand, you’ve gradually grown tired of the acid-trip-in-a-dressing-up-box schtick, the useless British accents, the wackier-than-thou show-boating, the panto-damery mistaken for eclecticism, you’re probably put off by the idea of listening to him give voice to a neurotic lizard. But it’s not that bad. At least there’s an element of self-analysis to the character, who trawls through his own repertoire of tics and tongues to come up with a convincing and consistent persona. Plus, the supporting cast of great gruffnesses, including Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, Bill Night, Ian Abercrombie etc., not to mention surprising and spiky turns from Isla Fisher and Abigail Breslin, off-sets and sets off the central performance with a sterling collective effort.
6. Industrial Light and Magic did the visual effects. That means that not only is the character animation wonderfully designed, a scratchy, cuddle-free mob of scaly, spiny, hairy critters, but the textures lighting and surfaces are all beautifully detailed. One of the things about Disney’s Tangled (which has many excellent qualities) that bothered me was some of the ropy water simulations. They just looked a little cheap, and not a patch on the hand painted versions from Pinocchio. But Rango has magnificent water, dust and glass effects that at times I doubted that they were CG at all. There’s an uncanny blend of Tex Avery logic and photorealistic look that is genuinely arresting, occasionally unsettling, and it’s primarily because the digital artists are accustomed to making this stuff look real, not cartoony. Roger Deakins, who must have been practising his Western tricks at the same time on True Grit, served as “visual consultant”; I’m not sure what that involves in practice, but the visuals here produce an immaculate pastiche of epic spaghetti western cinematography, and must presumably have been guided by the eye of an expert photographer. And while you’re enjoying the lack of 3-D, and if your cinema offers you the choice, avoid the digitally-projected version and see it on film. It just looks lovelier, and even the occasional pops and scratches will dirty things up a little. The machine-tooled sharp edges of digital projection work against the rough edges that Rango wants you to embrace.