Paramount Pictures, 2011, PG-13.

 A crooked-necked, crusty-green lizard (the title chameleon) makes an embarrassing retreat into the vast sandy landscape, his recognizable figure diminished to a state of unimportance by the scale of the desert. A lone figure (usually mounted) in the empty wilderness is commonplace in the Western genre, but it isn’t often that we view such an expansive shot in an animated picture. After all, we’re not looking at a real beautiful desert. It feels downright peculiar. In animation, we are used to seeing everything from the scaled perspective of our subject, be it an animal, creature or, in one famous case, a toy cowboy. But Rango chooses to break most of the rules of animation while abiding by the rules of the Western, as laid out by such masters as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Sergio Leone. The result is not only magnificent and unique animation but also one fantastic tribute to the Western genre.

The story of Rango basically takes the plot of Chinatown and runs it through a slew of Western movie conventions. It benefits from the cast of oddball characters viewers meet along the way (everything from four owl balladeers to an armadillo with spiritual visions to a Lee Van Cleef–inspired rattlesnake). Rango, the greenhorn chameleon, gets lost in the Southwestern desert, stumbles upon the drought-ridden town of Dirt, treats the slow-witted townspeople (actually reptiles, amphibians and rodents) to implausible stories of bravery and then manages to save the denizens of Dirt from a destructive hawk. Thus he becomes sheriff and must find the creature that stole all the town’s water. And yes, there is a one-on-one gunfight in the finale, accompanied by the required ambiance—a giant clock striking noon and a squeaking windmill.

Sounds like pretty typical stuff for the Western film buff. But there’s a moment when our main character is thrown into a daze, cast against an all-white palette, and finds the Spirit of the West (who looks and sounds like Clint Eastwood) poking at the sand with a metal detector—the most trivial of tasks. “The Man with No Name” gives our favorite chameleon some key advice before stepping into a golf cart filled with film awards and driving off into the whiteness. Once you stop laughing at the funniest frame in the film, you realize how satisfying and comical the eccentricities of director Gore Verbinski’s dusty but dazzling creation truly are.

The voices are well cast, led by Johnny Depp, a perfect fit for the role of Rango, with a tip of the skewed hat to both Don Knotts in Shakiest Gun in the West and Hunter S. Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Ned Beatty and Ray Winstone stand out as the tortoise mayor of Dirt and a Gila monster named Bad Bill. Roger Deakins, cinematographer of last year’s True Grit, helped the crew as a visual consultant. Composer Hans Zimmer masterfully meshes classic tunes of the OldWest. Listen carefully for the harmonica from Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in the West theme and another nod to Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Seven theme. Oh, and no, that’s not actually Clint Eastwood’s voice from the Clintlike Spirit of the West but a convincing impersonation by Timothy Olyphant of Deadwood fame.


Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.