Seven years ago, writer John Logan and producer Graham King made The Aviator – a prestige picture helmed by one of America’s greatest living directors, which featured a protagonist with obsessive-compulsion and a proclivity for bottling his urine in jars. The pair have teamed up again for Rango, which has a similarly neurotic oddball protagonist unsure of his place in the world at its centre, though the fundamental horror of his existence stems less from germophobia than an apparent crisis of identity.
Logan and King’s director this time around is not Martin Scorsese but Gore Verbinski, a gun-for-hire if there ever was one. Kind folks would generously describe Verbinski as the amorphous hack responsible for the overloaded and soulless Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and one senses a similar lack of conviction about the entire affair on display here. By gainfully injecting a children’s film with a "grown-up" sensibility, this is a filming of a screenplay so stuffed with convolution, it makes Heaven’s Gate look like a not particularly demanding episode of Blue’s Clues. Rango may be an oddly disarming animation by eschewing the uncomfortable for-the-parents innuendo of other children’s animations, but it’s nevertheless dogged by a weary plot that is likely to excite and confuse its audience in equal measure. Tellingly, almost all attempts at humour are leadenly telegraphed and obvious.
Flung out of the back window of an SUV, and into the desert town of Dirt (subtle), a frustrated and friendless lizard (Depp, called in for a favour) fashions a new identity for himself as a charismatic gunslinger “Rango”, who is made sheriff off the back of inadvertently killing a hawk menacing the town. The central thrust of the film then asks us to accept that said lizard in a Hawaiian shirt is undergoing an existential crisis – he’s not, at least not in the sense anyone mildly acquainted with Jean-Paul Satre would recognise – and forces a plotline about drought that feels like Verbinski caught an afternoon screening of Inside Job, or leafed through a copy of Too Big to Fail, and decided to hastily apply it to a children’s film.
Yes, Rango’s main nemesis is the mayor of the town, but he may as well been named Alan Greenspan and extolled the virtues of financial deregulation. Beatty voices this thick-skinned nefarious desert tortoise, who sups on a flagon of water like he’s sucking down infant blood. Beatty is most obviously channelling John Huston in Chinatown, in a script that liberally lifts Robert Towne’s central thesis in that film – “Whoever controls the water, controls the town” – and applies it to this Frontier town that appears to be somewhere in the swarthy expanses of the Nevada desert. It’s a neat idea, but one that doesn’t work in this cinematic context. Aside from the characters being animals of various descriptions, and co-existing in an odd melting-pot melange of rattlesnakes, gila monsters and nine-banded armadillos, there’s little to the story that couldn’t have been filmed live-action if the makers had decided to switch to humans. Tips of the hat to Leone, Peckinpah and – most explicitly – Clint Eastwood are welcome but distracting, and perhaps point to the film’s truer loyalties. One breathless sequence involving a chase on bats that seems designed to leaven the inertia of the plot, but turns out to have zero bearing on the film’s outcome. More to the point, Rango and his hard-as-nuts compatriot Beans (Fisher, doing her best Holly Hunter impression) aside, the characters are weightless and the plot confused. Once Rango begins weaving an elaborate fiction about killing seven men with one bullet, the line between his walkabout for self-validation and his capacity for theatrical invention is lost.
You can’t fault the ambition that’s on display here, but then again, that’s a charge you could level at any one of Logan’s similarly overstuffed screenplays – the heinously overwrought Any Given Sunday a case in point. Rango might have worked as a sandbox video game, with cut-scenes from the film proper inter-spliced between boring bits where desert critters worship a giant tap. As a feature length animation, though, it feels entirely superfluous – a quest to nowhere, that will satiate neither children nor their parents.