When the Rango trailer met with near-unanimous derision and dismissal among critics and, seemingly, audiences, I wonder if Gore Verbinski sat back and knowingly thought to himself, "To hell with it. They'll come crawling back when the time comes." If he did, he was right: Rango wastes no time announcing itself the first major mainstream release of the year, driven by a visual design unseen in any recent animated film that comes to mind and laced with a humor that never feels cheap or easy.
From its opening moments, Rango carries a mild sense of Dadaist whimsy, a mariachi band addressing the audience directly and introducing a character "who has yet to enter his own story." Cut to a flower-shirted chameleon going stir-crazy in a terrarium, organizing plays with the plastic objects littering his boxed home and even holding conversations with such props as a wind-up fish and a mock tree. Just as the lizard hits upon a new idea requiring an ironic twist for his protagonist, his masters' car lurches in traffic and sends the terrarium out of the foolishly open back window, stranding the domesticated creature in the middle of a harsh desert highway with a sun so hot a drop of water sizzles and evaporates on the tongue before it can even offer the tease of a quenched thirst. The poor beast shrivels up and partially crumbles twice in the rays.
At this point, the metafictional devices employed with the mariachi band and self-reflexive acting of the protagonist among his props gives way to outright surrealism, from a squashed armadillo carrying on a cryptic conversation with the lizard and sun-baked hallucinations allowing for some truly breathtaking yet hilarious animation. At last, our hero finds his way to a parched town called Dirt where he avoids a swift beating by taking the name Rango and putting his acting chops to the test with fanciful tales of gunslinging prowess.
Amazingly, Rango sidesteps the lazy appropriation of winking clichés seen in recent animated films, even as it eschews putting a toe into the Western genre pool for splashing in with a cannonball. This is the closest anyone has come to making a CGI Tarantino movie. Rango does not simply regurgitate pop culture, it embraces it, honoring conventions even as it pokes fun and adds new dimensions to them. Leone references dominate the landscape, from the use of a Morricone-esque score by Hans Zimmer to a likeness of the Man with No Name. The film also incorporates the work of Chuck Jones in its chaotic yet carefully composed animation, ensuring strict adherence of spatial relationships and perspective so that the sudden breaks are even more clanging, hilarious and daring. Verbinski even throws in a Fear and Loathing nod, recalling not only Hunter's own mad, hallucinogenic ride through the desert but Terry Gilliam, whose influence can be seen all over Rango's visual originality rooted in the work of others.
To even get into how gorgeous, how memorable and how singular the animation of Rango is would send this review down a dead-end street of superlatives. Who on Earth could have guessed from Rango's unalluring teaser that the primary influence on its visual scheme, even above classical Western imagery, would be the work of Salvador Dalí? To be fair, the animators left a hefty clue for the audience in the unimpressive frame of the protagonist. Rango, too weird to appeal in a trailer, works brilliantly in context: set against the startlingly realistic animation of the other animals, Rango visually clashes. His askew, pencil-thin neck supports his vast head like a glacial till holding up a balancing rock, and his slightly uneven eye sockets with narrowed nipples for peepers subtly resemble breasts. Only Rattlesnake Jake, a massive, coiling psychopath who comes to town to pop the bubble of Rango's inflated persona, matches Rango's off-kilter animation, what with his seemingly endless body and his machine-gun rattler.
The backdrops offer even more chances for innovative rendering. Hallucinations of terrifyingly symmetrical cactus configurations, slow-motion shots of a desert highway illuminates overhead by cars passing over the hero, and a transparently fake (and thus disgustingly recognizable) Las Vegas are but some of the masterful background animations in which Verbinski places his characters. Where Wes Anderson's inexperience with animation did not preclude him from dictating style and movement to his supposedly tortured team on Fantastic Mr. Fox, the less-mannered Verbinski appears to have reacted to his own unfamiliarity with the medium with humility, ceding artistic control to his animators. Amazingly, Rango fails to fall into the trap that entangled infamous examples of competing visions in animation (Disney's 1951 Alice in Wonderland comes swiftly to mind), maintaining a cohesive juxtaposition between surprising realism and the most brazen use of Dada in children's entertainment since the early brilliance of Spongebob Squarepants.
Of course, to say that assumes Rango could conceivably be seen as a kid's film, which it most emphatically is not. Though it sidesteps Tarantino's vulgarity, the sheer amount of adult-oriented pop culture references and film history on display offers nothing for a child, and most of the dialogue plays at, at the least, a teenage level. Only the slapstick could fully appeal to a child, but then physical comedy, when done well, is universal, and the comedy here is dynamite. And if the sophistication of the writing does not turn off the children, the sight of Rattlesnake Jake surely will, each lunge of his bared fangs or constricting coil around heroes terrifying enough to shake an adult. Those dismissing Rango for not being palatable to children (or praising it in spite of this "shortcoming") have grown too accustomed to the idea of animation being something that must appeal to children. Rango has just enough to keep a kid entertained -- and for the love of God, parents, let your kids get scared; it does 'em good -- but it clearly aims for an older audience.
Part of Rango's promotional package highlighted Verbinski's staging of the voice cast as if they were actually on-screen, filming them acting together in what seemed a desperate gimmick. Yet the move paid off, and Rango sports one of the voice casts of major stars to sound as if the actors did more than simply speak into the microphone. Bill Nighy properly sinks into his role as Jake, adding menace to his speech and not just his movement. An unrecognizable Isla Fisher plays Beans, the unfortunately named love interest who chatters in a contradictory mile-a-minute drawl shockingly familiar to those of us who have heard the slowed-down Southern accent as sped up by inflamed passions. And what a weird niche in which Ned Beatty has found himself, playing a crippled authority figure exuding false comfort and harboring ulterior motives in an animated film only a year after....well, you know.
Casting Rango, a delusional pet with aspirations of being a thespian, as a chameleon was a sly gag, and one Johnny Depp undoubtedly got. After the last two Pirates movies, the relationship between Depp and Verbinski went stale, to the point one could not easily recall how incandescent their first pairing was (and on a film preemptively dismissed as derivative and money-grabbing). They capture lightning in a bottle once more here, letting Depp exercise his most exuberant techniques without the setbacks of watching the actual man contort himself into buffoonish shapes for a laugh. Never appearing on-screen, Depp hasn't been so watchable in years.
Stuffed with allusions and surprises, Rango occasionally goes so far as to recontextualize its references and make something else out of them. A massive canyon chase not only combines elements of the podcast race and Death Star trench run of Episodes I and IV, respectively, it also adds a dash of the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, albeit with bats. Three superb sequences combine into one visual tour-de-force that borrows the best aspects from all of them and plays around in the white space left over. At the other end of the spectrum, the film pokes fun at the stereotypes of Native Americans, the somber raven to whom Rango incessantly condescends always subverting expectations based on genre clichés (a reference to Depp's involvement in the thoroughly anti-cliché, anti-Western Dead Man, perhaps?). I also enjoyed the idea of a town so literally dry that, when the locals laugh at the naïve city slicker asking for water, they do so because they'd all love nothing more than a sip of the stuff instead of alcohol.
In a year where Pixar already seems to be planning a working vacation with Cars 2, Rango might survive in the public consciousness through the year and win some accolades come the next awards season. One can only hope; Rango is one of the few animated films to ignore Pixar entirely, either as competition or influence. The makers focused only on telling a good story in the way they saw it, and the results freely leap off the screen despite staying in obsolete ol' 2D. Intelligent, witty, original films of any stripe do not come along often, and to see something this bold come from the seemingly dessicated corpse of Nickelodeon Studios proves one should never count anyone out. The film circles around the idea that anyone can be a hero given the right circumstances and sense of perseverance and duty; Rango itself proves how dedication turns a decent concept into great art.