There are two types of animation throughout the world, animation that is intended to kids and that which isn’t. In the west it isn’t that clear, on screen American animation is much more child-friendly, a child-friendly medium which is divided by two very different sensibilities. That of DreamWorks which is unequivocally meant for kids and money making purposes and Pixar which tries to tell stories that matter, stories that are accessible to young and old in equal measure. The latest animated film isn’t quite so clear cut as it should fall in as a bed fellow of either DreamWorks or Pixar’s output, but it doesn’t. The film which struggles to find its place is Rango.

Rango is the story of a domesticated chameleon that has ambitions to act and in the middle of his latest performance, the car which he is being transported in has an accident whereby this chameleon is thrown out of the back of the car and out of his comfort zone. What follows for the chameleon, who later calls himself Rango, is a journey of self discovery. A journey that takes him to a frontier-style town called Dirt, occupied exclusively by small animals and reptiles. Unfortunately the town is having a rather hard time of it, struggling to survive thanks to a water shortage. That sort of plot line may be a story not too far from the ordinary for a Western, Spaghetti or otherwise, but the first thing that people see when they see Rango is an animated film which has been marketed towards kids. What you would expect from the lead up to its release is something far more child-friendly than this heady mix of Chinatown and Sergio Leone.

Although the film is beautifully animated it is also very ugly too, forever proving that beauty is only skin deep. Allow me to elaborate a little further; the world in which our characters inhabit is striking both in its detail and cinematography, however, that same praise cannot be extended to the characters.  It seems the animators and the director were looking to make Rango an ugly film rather than making a film which universally appeals to everyone thanks to the ugly character designs. Everybody in Rango, both human and animal kind alike, is hairy, filthy and far from desirable, the very last things that you would ever expect to find in a kids film. This is shown best in the character Spoons, a small mouse with overgrown hair and congealed filth everywhere; he is the slightly crazy and very stupid character archetype that you will have seen in westerns endless times before only funnier.

It’s not just what the characters look like that is decidedly child-unfriendly, it’s what said characters do too. Characters in Rango die and not the sort of deaths you would get that incite an emotional impact from the remaining cast that provoke change. No, not at all, characters in Rango die with frightening regularity and usually for little to no reason at all. Add all of these things together and what you will find is a film that isn’t for kids, if you have small children and you take them to see Rango then the child in your life will spend a good amount of the films running time crying.

I think that is enough talk on what Rango isn’t, let’s move onto what it is. If you are an adult who has ever seen a western then you will fall in love with all its surreal madness as much as I did. Sometimes it seems like a film is just made for you that is how much I enjoyed Rango. This is the last thing I would have expected to have said when I first seen that original trailer.

That may be so, but I don’t think any trailer could prepare you for this film. Take the opening 10 or so minutes, we have a nameless gecko voiced by Johnny Depp bouncing around between various dramatic set pieces before being thrown violently out of the back end of his small contained world which ultimately leads up to one of the strangest references I have seen in a long time. I won’t spoil this reference for you as it’s the first of many occasions were you have to stop for a second to double check that you just saw what you thought you did.

Not only is it a weird film, it’s also entertaining. Not only is it weird and entertaining, it’s also scary thanks to Bill Nighy’s brilliant Rattlesnake Jake and some dazzling voice acting from everybody involved. But the most prominent thing I remember from Rango is just how happy it made me after seeing it, not many films entertain me as much as this. Rango makes the endless droves of recent action films look tame by comparison and this is a so-called kid’s film. For example, take a scene quite late into the film in which we have a chaotic chase scene where we have gun fights, one-liners, innuendo and a family of moles riding bats whilst playing a bluegrass version of ride of the Valkyries. When you describe scenes like that it really does go a distance to paint a vivid picture of the sort of referential depth and fun that you experience throughout these 107 minutes. Here’s another example, a character displays how to outdo everybody else’s stories in one step is simultaneously hilarious and surreal, and this is a scene that is still tickling my funny bone now.

I think I have seen the first post-Oscar must see of the year which is also the first must win for an award. Come Oscar season next year, this film has pretty much both hands on the best animated feature. Thus for a film to beat this it would mean that an impossibly good film is going to be released this year and looking at all the sequels and cash-ins this isn’t going to happen.

Rob Simpson