Nickelodeon Studios primarily makes television shows targeted towards kids. These include Rugrats, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Fairly Odd Parents, and Avatar: the Last Airbender. Later they started producing movies that were based off of their best selling television programming. This is how we got Good Burger (1997) and The Rugrats Movie (1998) among others. They did a few films that were not blatant advertisements for their television show such as Harriet the Spy (1996), Snow Day (2000), and Charlotte's Web (2008). Most of their movies have been less than stellar. Then along came Rango (2011), directed by Gore Verbinski. Given Nickelodeon Movies’ running streak of mediocrity, Rango didn’t even make it on my list of movies to see. Fortunately, I ended up seeing the movie anyway.
Rango (Johnny Depp) is a sheltered chameleon living as an ordinary family pet. He keeps himself entertained by being a method actor, acting out his own plays with inanimate objects as other characters. While traveling, the family car hits a bump sending, Rango and his cage flying off the vehicle and out into the desert. After wandering in the desert for some time, he comes across the gritty, gun-slinging town called Dirt. Dirt is populated by a host of wacky, lawless desert creatures, which makes the timid Rango stick out like a sore thumb. Rango uses his acting skills and conjures up an old west style character to help him try to blend in; this is where he comes up with the name “Rango.” This new persona is welcomed as a last hope for Dirt, which is slowly dying of thirst. Rango is made Sheriff to help figure out why the water is gone. Sheriff Rango’s efforts stir up some nasty villains and political intrigue.
I think the most blaringly obvious positive quality of this movie is the animation. This is some of the best CGI I’ve seen, comparable to the quality of animation that has made Pixar so successful. There’s so much detail in the characters: you can see the scales on the lizards, distinguish the feathers on the birds, and most impressive is the animation for the water. Water played a significant driving force in this story so it needed to look good. Water is very difficult to animate well; it needs really detailed control over the particle effects and lighting. Rango pulled this visual effect off brilliantly. The characters are designed to be zany and exaggerated, but still have lots of detail and care behind them. They just bring to mind some of the hand drawn characters from classic animated features. Another great thing about the animation is the color. Rango used such vibrant colors that it was almost difficult to take your eyes from the screen at any point. It is obvious that Rango was created with loving attention and detail by the artists involved in its production. Computer generated imagery can be a quick shortcut in animation, but shouldn’t be an excuse for creating low quality animated films.
The character Rango, himself, is quite interesting. He’s good natured, and hilariously naïve, but makes his way through his problems apparently by drawing inspiration from western movies he must have seen. He lacks confidence, but does his best not to let the townsfolk of Dirt see it. As a chameleon, Rango is meant to blend in, which he tries to do. But great responsibility is placed on Rango; how do you aim high when your purpose in life is to blend in? Rango (not Johnny Depp) really does improvise as he makes his way through the story, sort of inventing his character as he goes. I don’t particularly believe that the “fake it ‘till you make it” philosophy is a very good one to approach a problem, but Rango does just that, and he does make it; ultimately becoming the character he made up for himself at the beginning.
The story in Rango is absurdly creative! It kind of pays homage to a lot of old western movies, but includes a lot of comedy. The more westerns you’ve seen the funnier this movie will be. If Blazing Saddles (1974) was CGI animated with silly desert animals as the characters, you’d basically have Rango. It is delightfully non-formulaic. I kept thinking to myself, “yeah, here’s the part where they realize he’s not the gun-slinger he says he is.” But the movie didn’t do it. I kept expecting cliché story elements to pop up, but most of them didn’t; and the ones that did were done in a creative, unpredictable way. This gave the movie an invigorating, fresh quality to it.
I’m glad I ended up seeing Rango. It was fun, creative, humorous, and well designed and executed. It's a satire of a lot of old westerns. I'm sure if you're a fan of westerns you'll get a big kick out of it. And if you're a fan of silly comical animated movies, you'll also get a big kick out of it. It’s a good, clean family film that is intelligently written to keep viewers of all ages entertained. I am not the center of the target audience for Rango, but for those who are in the target audience, I recommend adding this movie to your DVD/Blu-Ray collection.
What movie have you seen in the last year that significantly exceeded your expectations? Why did it surprise you so much?