A stranger shambles along the dusty main street of a down-on-its-luck town and bursts through the swinging doors of the saloon, causing a sensation. It’s not an ordinary town, even by the standards of the Old West – or the standards of the movies about the Old West – and he’s no ordinary stranger: He’s a daydream-y chameleon in a loud Hawaiian shirt.
Yes, that’s right: he’s a little lizard who fancies himself a dramatic hero, at least in the one-man shows he staged in the cozy terrarium that had been his home. But his days as a pampered pet are over, thanks to a nasty automobile accident out on the highway yonder. Now, he’s got to make his own way in the world… and that fun bit of improv he performed off the cuff for the champion-hungry folk of Dirt might just turn into a full-time hero job.
Oh, yeah, and the folk of Dirt: they’re not your ordinary movie-Western denizens, either. They’re ornery critters in a way that no Western has ever seen before – they’re visually ornery, beautifully ugly CGI creations with a downright grandeur to their unattractiveness, toads and rats and hares and other scurrying desert animals that have only just barely been anthropomorphized and retain every last little bits of their nonhuman idiosyncrasies. Every reptilian scale and scabby wart and bristly hair has been lovingly rendered in photorealistic cartoon glory, and you will look upon them with shivers of hard-bitten delight. Beatrix Potter this ain’t.
And thank the movie gods for that. The creative death of Hollywood has been postponed once again, the patient lingering on life support for a little while longer thanks to perhaps its last practitioners of cinematic originality: the makers of animated films. Rango isn’t just a great feature-length cartoon: It’s effortlessly the best movie of 2011 so far, and it’s the best Western in ages. How can it be that a kiddie movie is wiser and funnier and more relevant than the Coen Brothers’ True Grit?
Rango is, in fact, what a Coens’ animated flick might look like and sound like, if they got an assist from Terry Gilliam. This is a deeply weird and deeply demented movie, and thrillingly so. Rango (the voice of Johnny Depp, having a ball) experiences a bizarre nightmare during his first thirsty, lonely night in the desert, a surrealistic dream sequence the likes of which many films supposedly for grownups wouldn’t dare; director Gore Verbinski does not hesitate to import some of the creepier visual concepts from his Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Screenwriter John Logan (Sweeney Todd, The Aviator) is not afraid to touch on tricky matters of death wishes – one bit sees a powerfully disturbing attempt by a despondent Rango to commit suicide by roadkill – and a spirituality that goes beyond pat clichés. (The demigodlike Spirit of the West makes an appearance, and hoo boy, who knew Timothy Olyphant could sound so much like Clint Eastwood?)
The plot that needs a hero to make right revolves around the economy of the town of Dirt, which runs on the water that is running out for reasons that appear nefarious at first and become even more so as the mystery begins to unravel itself. When we learn that the bank is unable to make loans and hear the turtle mayor (the voice of Ned Beatty) intone solemnly about how “sacrifices will have to be made” on the part of the citizens (and not by those who caused the water to dry up), well, danged if it doesn’t begin to become clear that this here kiddie cartoon is a metaphor for the ongoing economic crisis.
It’s none of it prettified. It’s not in 3D. It gleefully courts doom and gloom with its mariachi band of owls, serving as a Greek chorus, that keeps reassuring us in song, very convincingly so, that Rango is going to die, he is most certainly doomed, there’s nothing that can save him. It’s chock full of animals drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. It’s full of innuendo that is clever and sly and will go so over the kiddies’ heads that they won’t even think to ask what the nice chameleon meant when he said that. It features an honest-to-god cameo by an animated Hunter S. Thompson. What is Hollywood coming to with Rango… and how can we ensure that it stays there?
RANGO (4) Directed by Gore Virbinski •Voiced by Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton •Rated PG •107 min •At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas and Lighthouse Cinemas.