Bringing back The Man With No Name is a tricky enterprise in this day and age. Not only because of the obvious difficulties with putting out Westerns, but also because of the comparisons similar to those that floated around True Grit. There’s little point trying to recast Clint Eastwood.
Rango not only brings back The Man With No Name, but in some sense also brings back The Man With No Name, and then actually brings back The Man With No Name. I realize that’s hard to make sense of, but it’s oddly clear as you watch the film.
It works out, and is in fact possibile at all, because this time around we’re animated, and the titular hero is a lizard, and he’s something of a goof. Speaking of our titular hero, don’t let it slip past you that our reinvention of The Man With No Name not only names our man in the title, but opens with a long soliloquy about defining oneself.
Rango (Johnny Depp), who wonderfully does not start out with a name, but chooses it for himself once a name becomes a necessity, is your average lizard in a terrarium until an accident leaves him stranded in the middle of the desert. Without the slightest clue how to actually survive, but a fervent belief in making yourself what you need to be in a situation (for as long as you can pull that off), our hero makes his way to a dried-up town straight out of the Old West. In keeping with a certain metaphor/literal game we’ll be playing throughout the film, it’s a dried-up town by way of being out of water, which is what our populace of varmints and vermin use as currency.
It’s a hard town Rango has wandered into, and if he’s going to survive among some of the nastiest, scaliest hombres this side of the highway, he’s going to have to figure some way to survive. Given his previous life, he doesn’t have much to work with. A certain toad offers him some quick survival advice as a hawk circles overhead – “Psstt… Blend in.” That isn’t really Rango’s style though, and he aims for the opposite tack, donning the persona of a legendary gunfighter, and spinning yarns of his heroics for all he’s worth.
In this version of what is a primary staple of western fare, the big galoot squeezing the hard-working, honest citizens is their own Mayor (Ned Beatty), a creepy, old tortoise if ever there was one. He’s buying up land, and it’s an easy task when there’s a never-ending drought. The Mayor has serious plans, and a little pipsqueak of an outsider isn’t about to upset them.
Through a fairly standard course of events (mixed with rather non-standard scenarios, like voles on bats with gattling guns), Rango manages to get the town behind him, and more or less cozies up to local damsel Beans (Isla Fisher). It’s a hunt to find out what happened to the water, and save a town that, quite frankly, may or may not be worth saving, led by a hero who may or may not be worth saving himself.
There’s an odd mix at work here, which probably should be no surprise considering Gore Verbinski and John Logan (Gladiator, The Last Samurai, The Aviator, Sweeney Todd) are behind an animated western. Classic themes mesh with outlandish antics, and the fur (except that there is little fur) flies fast and furious. There is a good deal of wild action, and much that is silly, though in the end I am decidedly unclear as to how well younger audiences will take to it. On the other hand, despite occasionally finding itself unsure how to get out of its own way, it’s bursting with fun, and delivers a welcome return to the Old West.
Below check out some clips, the trailer, and other goodies. Use the playlist feature to select among the videos.