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The story is a familiar one, with an untested dreamer mistaken for something more than he is becoming the hero in a story filled with desperate players and corrupt leaders but somehow the makers of Rango make it work. Credit goes to nearly all involved from the colorful and highly-detailed characters and animation to the script and direction to the superb voice work. It suffers from a bit of excess, a trademark of its director, but is for almost its entire runtime, a genuinely entertaining big budget movie.
It starts with an eccentric chameleon (in a sensational voice-over performance by Johnny Depp) beginning his journey nameless, a pet in a terrarium stocked with a headless, legless, naked Barbie doll and a windup fish-shaped bath toy. In his tiny world, he is king, a thespian of unmatched skill and his latest production is . . . well, cut short as he is traveling in the back of a car that hits a bump and sends his glass house out the back window and onto the road. That road cuts through the Mojave Desert and after meeting an old armadillo trying to get to the other side, he learns of a place called Dirt, where he might find water.
Along the way there, he encounters a desert iguana named Beans (Isla Fisher), a rancher’s daughter who isn’t too keen on this peculiar, Hawaiian shirt-wearing stranger, but gives him a lift and hopes he leaves her alone. For now. Trying to fit into this throwback town of the old west, the chameleon eventually stumbles into a saloon and with tales of adventure, takes the name Rango, winning the allegiance of those in earshot, who quickly make the lizard the town’s new sheriff, a role Rango clings to immediately. In a town where nobody knows you, you can be anyone you want.
That’s when Rango learns that Dirt is in seriously dire straits and the water that used to be steady is all but dried up. Folks are packing up and leaving and the town’s bank, which holds the water, is nearly out. It’s a mystery that piques the new sheriff’s interest and so he sets about to save the town and the new woman he finds himself fancying.
Directed by Gore Verbinski, Rango is a bit of everything with a plot that is as see through as the water they are chasing and laced with some decidedly adult themes, including a number of violent on-screen deaths and of course the controversial smoking, of which there is plenty. Yet by nature, it feels like a children’s movie complete with morals and lessons to learn, though it’s wickedly sharp and much smarter than it appears. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
The Armadillo tells of a Spirit of the West, a mystical man riding the desert in an alabaster carriage with golden guardians to protect him. He brings enlightenment to those who find him and it is this very quest that actually causes the accident by which poor Rango fell out of his owner’s car.
This bit of lore (concerning the Spirit of the West) is mostly forgotten for much that follows as Rango becomes embroiled in his adventure, impressing the town with his feats of (accidental) heroism. He learns much about the real reason the water has disappeared, earning the trust of the town and better yet, the heart of Beans.
At the center of the conspiracy is the town’s Mayor (Ned Beatty), whom Rango suspects has a hand in the water’s wash-up, but can’t put it together, though gets close enough to have the Mayor call in for some backup, the dreaded Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), a gunslinger with a nasty reputation and tail that fires bullets.
Rattlesnake Jake exposes Rango for who he really is, convincing the town he is a fraud. Rango, unable to continue his charade, decides to leave, and in shame, cowers out of Dirt with the town slack-jawed in shock and worse, left in despair as their hopes for finding water evaporate. Beans has the last words, asking forlornly as he passes, “Who are you?” He has no answer.
Rango leaves town as night falls and the film shifts to a heavy, melancholy feel as the score, once populated by stereotypical Mariachi music fades to a somber guitar with light strings. It’s a marked change that completely transforms the tone. Visually, the sequence is also some of the most arresting in the film as the desert readies for the chill night, echoing the shadows and emptiness within our hero. It’s a beautiful, haunting string of imagery that truly helps set this film apart.
Eventually, Rango heads back from whence he came and arrives at the same road where he began his journey, finding his fish and Barbie where he left them. As the nighttime stream of traffic barrels by in long brilliant lines of bright white and fiery red, Rango sits in the dust, contemplating Bean’s question. In the hollows of the evening shade, alone with his own demons, he finds his answer. “Who am I?” he whispers. “I’m nobody.”
So he approaches the road as the trucks and cars race by, their head and tail lights blurring the night air in ribbons of white and red. To the other side he must go he decides, or along the way perish and be forgotten forever. This is the fate of a man with no name and a past built on embellishments, even if has done good by it.
He removes his cowboy hat and looks out toward the impenetrable void on the other side, a vast harrowing swath of blackness that is as eternal as the question he tries to answer. It’s a place of uncertainty and unknowns, a foreboding home to what most fear to learn. To get there is a dangerous journey that demands faith in oneself, a choice that will change a person no matter what is discovered. And to begin, it takes one first step into the greatest of fears, a fateful footfall that decides all that will follow. Rango goes.
This moment is one of the finest animated sequences ever put on film, a powerfully symbolic expression of personal conviction and a visually impressive representation of finding hope in oneself by facing and accepting the barriers and hurdles we fear hold us back. Before arriving at the road, by leading Rango through the desert at night, his feet traipsing along the edge of a tall sand dune, his path leaving long trails in the sands as they roll away, we understand how much impact each step of his life truly has had.
By sitting on the side of the road with the anchors of his past, we learn that while remaining in the comforts of what we feel is secure are also the very things that keep up from finding our greatest potential.
What we are and what that means is always a scary thing to explore, and so often many of us perhaps feel like frauds in our own lives, despite the greatness we do. The question of who we are is one that evolves over time, and certainly, feeling like we are nobody is part of the discovery we all learn to accept and it is that very quest that ironically defines us most. Letting go and moving into the unknown is one of life’s greatest journeys but to do so means stepping into the path of absolute uncertainty. We must look into the void and find trust. This is what Rango faces and it is testament to the film’s commitment to this theme that has such strength when the moment comes.
I’ll leave it to you to discover the outcome of Rango’s first big step. And while the result may overshadow everything that comes before it, pay close attention to this sequence carefully for it is a far stronger message and one that gives Rango the character and film, its resounding depth. A truly great moment.