This is the tale of Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp), a pet chameleon who had ambitions to be an actor, but as he was travelling across the desert highway on the back of the car driven by his owners, there was a slight mishap and he wound up jolted onto the road, left behind by the oblivious family who continued without him. Now he was in a quandary, and pondered his next move - as he did so a voice called to him, so he looked round to see an armadillo half-squashed by a passing truck. Did he hold the key to Rango's destiny?
Actually, we don't find out what the chameleon's real name is, because Rango is the moniker he chooses when taking on the role of his life, that being a gunfighter in a Western movie. He's not so self-aware that he knows he's fictional, but it was a part of a work that often nodded to other efforts in a way that said, you like movies like these? Then check this out, this is one of those too. It was the first animation from Industrial Light and Magic, under the direction of Gore Verbinski, also making his first cartoon, and the style they adopted was consciously different to the likes of Pixar or Dreamworks.
Here was a meticulously detailed look, with the mostly animal cast of characters highly distinctive without appearing to have had their rough edges smoothed down, if anything those rough edges were encouraged in the design. Rango goes to find himself in a remote small town not a million miles away from a million cowboy flicks that used to be made as if they were going out of fashion until they did indeed go out of fashion, leading this to resemble Verbinski doing to Westerns what he did to pirate epics, and while it didn't catch on quite as huge as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, this did very respectably.
Only, it seemed it went over better with the parents and grown-ups who had more patience with the references that littered the screen - there's a blatant Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas gag in the opening ten minutes, for example. This was fine if you were a movie buff, but might have had others a little lost as to the point of the enterprise, though even so there was enough here with fun setpieces and silly jokes to prove welcoming to the non-initiates, should they set aside their misgivings. Helping immensely was the voice work of Depp, who brought the same wealth of personality to this as he had his live action work.
He was backed up by other reliable tones in the vocal shape of Isla Fisher as the love interest or Ned Beatty as the Potter-like mayor of the town, all lending personality to images that were bursting with that in the first place. Only the fact that this was so in thrall to the past was what prevented it from turning into something as groundbreaking as the imagery kept threatening to do, but the plot did have something to say to contemporary audiences other than the usual coward finds his feet yarn that many family animations revelled in. This took the form of a theme of how the townsfolk's riches are running out after being frittered away by the wealthy powers that be, a credit crunch in-joke that is the main bone of contention for the inhabitants; cleverly with this located in the desert it was water and not money that they are gasping for. Indeed, you'll likely be left feeling pretty thirsty at the end of a somewhat randomly assembled storyline which develops with wit and charm the more it progresses. The great music by Hans Zimmer is the icing on the cake.
Born Gregor Verbinski, this visually inventive director got his start in advertising before making his feature debut in 1997 with the anarchic comedy Mousehunt. He helmed the critically-maligned thriller The Mexican and hit horror remake The Ring, while swashbuckling epic Pirates of the Caribbean, with Johnny Depp, spawned a multi-million dollar franchise. He left that after the third instalment to make his first animation, the comedy Western Rango which he followed with a live action one, mega-flop The Lone Ranger, then another flop, the horror remake A Cure for Wellness. Verbinski was also creator of Budweiser's frog TV ad campaign.