An homage has to be done just right these days; we've seen so many of them that after a while the lines become blurred between pop culture references (I'm looking at YOU, Dreamworks, for the most part) and it becomes more about that than about telling a good story and with engaging characters. Rango has that... but that is and isn't why the film is so incredible and original in its presentation. Indeed I'm not sure if it is "original" except in how the filmmakers- co-writer/director Gore Verbinski of the Pirates of the Caribbean series and head wretr John Logan- treat the material. Right from the title it's a play on the spaghetti western near-classic Django, though how many kids in the audience seeing that trailer that's played for the past year (the one where the lizard tries to hide in the desert and evade being lunch for the hawk) is hard to say. Probably not many, at all.
I hoped for a fun romp with Johnny Depp leading the way with some of his usual eccentricities and charisma as a performer. What I did not expect at all was to be thrown into a comedy take-off on westerns that have jokes and characters speaking dialog that is, arguably, more geared towards adults than kids. This is not to say kids can't enjoy it, and its PG rating is there for such a reason that it never has anything *too* profane, or anything so violent past its Loony Tunes influence (and please take that last part as a sincere compliment in comparison). But all of its jokes are intelligent and with an eye and ear for the sublimely ridiculous.
There's a scene where Rango- which the lizard dubs himself as he wanders into a Western-town called 'Dirt' inhabited by fellow anthropomorphic beings after being flung out from his owner's car- goes into a bar and gets himself a drink. He talks a big game as this 'Rango' feller for killing seven gunslingers, with ONE bullet, but is given a look-down by a mean-gunslinging rodent that walks into the bar and sits next to Rango. What does the lizard do? Why take the cigar the rodent's smoking on, you know, to be all "manly" as a lizard, swallow it, take the cactus-juice (or, rather, alcohol) and drink it down so as to breathe fire on the mangy beast. Then he throws more cactus juice on to the critter. Oops.
Verbinski's film is loaded with great physical jokes like that, and others too that I was surprised to see in a movie presented by Nickelodeon movies (where else since the days of Ren & Stimpy would I find a prostate-inspired joke, with that term specifically used?) What's further amazing is how he is wise to the way that not only the Western genre works, and also comedy and thrillers involving land barons previously played by John Huston (does "The future, Mr. Rango, the future!" ring a bell), but how screen-writing and storytelling itself plays a role into it. When we first see Rango he's in his little tank, though we don't know that quite yet. He mentions how he needs conflict, something to propel him forward on to his "hero" journey, this being spoken to an orange wind-up fish and a headless toy. I was grinning ear to ear at this, how knowing Verbinski was of his audience to trust with a self-conscious gag, and make it work into the rest of the film.
To be sure the story he's telling is one of a typical "hero's" story: a stranger without any real identity stumbles upon a chance to be somebody- Sheriff in this case for "Dirt"- and help out solve a conniving mystery involving the water supply in town, up against a nefarious turtle-Mayor (Ned Beatty, who else) and a conspiracy that later involves some mole-rats. What matters is not what's typical, and I think Verbinski and Logan know that well enough to take the beats further along. Since we know the words, what about the music? Rango is loaded with the kind of verbal and behavioral jokes that would be more commonplace in a Robert Altman film than a new blockbuster animated adventure aimed at families.
For some it may appear even within its typical narrative to be all over the place with its comedy. For me, I could not get enough of the inspired direction and imagination, which veered from, again, Loony Tunes-esque mania to take-offs on Westerns, and little jokes for those who can look careful-like enough (maybe even a Raising Arizona reference, just noticeable enough during a chase with a yodel singing on the soundtrack?) There's even a surprise cameo which I would dare not mention here except... well, I still won't spoil anything! Suffice to say he's not listed in the credits, but he gives a voice in a turning point that is critical for Rango, and made my jaw drop with glee at his mere REAL appearance.
Aside from the visual virtuosity of the film, with its animation bringing out the characters vividly to look almost photo-real while still sticking to its animation (in other words, not mo-Cap, but better than usual CGI animation outside of Pixar), there's the voice acting. While Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy and Timothy Olyphant deserve some high praise, it's Johnny Depp who makes it his show, and Dog bless him. He's been hit or miss with his performances since he became super-duper-world-wide sensation Jack Sparrow from Verbinski's films, however here he's more than comfortable: he makes a fear of comic and (occasionally) dramatic daring-do with this character, a plucky upstart who is a wonderful fake who just loves playing this role of Sheriff of Dirt and really gets into it, even wooing the eccentric Miss Beans. It's energetic, fun, and with a little of that insanity that makes Depp so wonderful as an actor.
I would love to revisit the film again just to take in how fast and loose the filmmakers play with genre and conventions, and slip some outrageous jokes right under the wire. It's mainstream filmmaking with expert craftsmanship - there were little moments, here and there, I almost forgot I was watching an animated movie - and some subversive edge, the kind that brings out the promise seen in the perfect-surreal ten-minute set piece in POTC: At Worlds End when Jack Sparrow is in Davy Jones' Locker. Rango is surprising and hip, and is smart but doesn't think it's smarter than its audience - rather, it hopes that everyone can keep up to point where it is as creative comedy and action. And if kids can gravitate towards it ala the first Shrek (minus the franchise opportunities) all the better.
PS: One spoiler, to give an idea where the film is at: there is a Hunter S. Thompson reference, very much so that you can't miss it, early on.
PPS: As a sign of how out-of-the-box Verbinski was working with Rango in its usual construction, here is a still from the behind-the-scenes work: the cast performs in full costume on a stage! Only Wes Anderson when he made Fantastic Mr. Fox did something this odd but fun.