There are a lot of different kinds of actors when it comes to getting into character, but there are two kinds that are particularly notable. Some actors are capable of completely submersing themselves into a variety of roles, bringing each character to life as their own individual creation, allowing the audience to forget that they’re watching Daniel Day-Lewis, for example. Other actors may be just as entertaining but their personal presence dominates any role they take, such that the audience is always watching Jack Nicholson as a character rather than just watching a character. Johnny Depp occupies a weird little overlap between those two groups. While some of his characters are similar to each other, they are often very different from each other; Sam from Benny and Joon is not Ichabod Crane from Sleepy Hollow, who isn’t Captain Jack Sparrow. And yet, at the same time, they are all unmistakeably Johnny Depp characters; it’s impossible to picture anybody else playing those roles quite the same way.
This is true even when the character is a digitally-animated lizard.
Of course, several of his characters are also recognizable as being Hunter S. Thompson.
The character of Rango isn’t precisely like any other Depp character I’ve seen… but once again, he’s unmistakeably a Depp character. He’s a domesticated chameleon who dreams of being a thespian, and is accidentally tossed from his cage and set adrift in a desert town of critters, where he starts making up wild stories about his adventures in the old west. The wilder his stories get, the more the townsfolk believe him, and they make him their sheriff. He’s an animated character, and being a lizard there is of course no physical resemblance to Johnny Depp… but his mannerisms and expressions are so unmistakeably Johnny Depp that it’s impossible that anyone familiar with the actor wouldn’t immediately know who was providing the voice. After seeing numerous Depp characters, we know that if Depp were to perform this role in live-action, he would move precisely that way, use precisely that expression. The film was directed by Gore Verbinski, who worked with Depp on the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and one suspects he told his animators to observe Depp closely.
The other characters come to life just as easily. Isla Fisher voices the romantic interest, a lizard named Beans who is prone to fits of catatonia; it may be the least dynamic of the major roles, but it’s still interesting given that she’s as proactive as Rango for significant parts of the film. Alfred Molina gives a great performance, as usual, as Rango’s spiritual mentor when he first starts off on his adventure. And, of course, there are a couple of great bad guys, with Ned Beatty voicing the town’s corrupt mayor and Bill Nighy providing the voice for hired gun Rattlesnake Jake. Beatty and Nighy are, aside from Depp, the highlights of the film, as their characters are both highly entertaining and provide a real sense of menace to what is, ostensibly, a kid’s cartoon.
They always go after the love interest. If the hero didn’t have one, they’d probably set him up with a date just so they could go after her.
The story is, of course, a pastiche and parody of the western genre, complete with a Clint Eastwood homage. There’s a huge dose of comedy injected, and it’s very successful at getting the laughs. But this shouldn’t be taken to mean that it’s just a kiddie comedy; what makes the film work is that it really is a solid example of the western genre in its own right. It’s a parody, yes, but it’s a respectful one that truly understands and honors where it’s coming from. As such, this would be a very entertaining story even if it had no laughs in it at all; as it is, it’s a superb one.
It’s also superbly animated. Most of the characters look fantastic, Beans being perhaps the one character that doesn’t look all that natural, but this may be a side-effect of the catatonia. The background elements look great as well. Water, a key element of the storyline, moves and flows naturally, and even looks correct when it evaporates off the desert ground. Buildings and stone and glass all look great, erring just enough on the side of looking cartoony to keep them from seeming “too real” compared to the characters. And the skies, which I’ve seldom noticed in previous animated features, would fit perfectly into traditional western scenes.
I would not have expected Nickelodeon Studios to produce truly great animated features that could be enjoyed by all ages. Maybe that’s just old prejudice based on their shows from the 1990s, I don’t know. But after Rango and The Adventures of Tintin, I find I’m more than a little impressed with what they’ve been able to turn out.