Review: Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski bring the outrageous ‘Rango’ to life

“Rango” is one of those films that I love simply because it exists. 

The fact that Gore Verbinski took all the box-office clout he earned directing the mega-blockbuster “Pirates Of The Caribbean” trilogy and used it to make a spaghetti western about a domesticated chameleon who ends up alone in the desert, animated completely by a company that has never made a full-length animated film… that is so totally preposterous that I feel like it’s this great magical little accident, worth extra scrutiny right away.

The good news is that, for the most part, “Rango” is a wild and witty race through a variety of genre conventions, twisted through the filter of a bunch of strange-looking anthropomorphic animals running a riff on “Chinatown.”  Yes, that’s right.  It’s “Chinatown.”  For kids.  With animals.  In the old west.

There’s a sophisticated silliness to what Verbinski and ILM have accomplished here, and the mix of slapstick with nimble verbal wit with designs by Crash McCreery, unchained after years of bringing some of the best-known fantastic creatures in pop cinema to life, is almost intoxicating.  “Rango” feels unhinged at its best moments, like anything might happen, and it’s liberating to see such talented people running so absolutely off the rails.

I mean that as a good thing, by the way.

As strange as it sounds, “Rango” seems to me like this homegrown science project that grew in the moist undergrowth of the “Pirates” movies.  James Ward Byrkit, who has a co-story credit on the film with Verbinski, was a big part of the art department on all three of the “Pirates” films, and the same is true of Mark “Crash” McCreery, who was a key designer on films like “Jurassic Park,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman Returns,” “Interview With The Vampire,” “Galaxy Quest,” “A.I.,” Ang Lee’s “Hulk,” and more.  He’s a remarkable artist, and he’s credited as the “production designer” on this film, the first time he’s ever had that credit on a film.  And the animation director on the film, Hal Hickel, is an ILM artist through and through, working animation on films like “The Lost World,” the “Star Wars” prequels, and, of course, the “Pirates” movies.  And, of course, Verbinski’s right there in the lead, the ringleader on this particular circus.

While “Rango” certainly pays tribute to conventions of the western genre, and also makes any number of visual nods to the history of the western, including a special appearance by the Spirit Of The West that should make fans howl, it is filled with many strange and lovely digressions.  John Logan somehow wrangled all of these thoughts into a screenplay that works as a movie, both playing by rules and breaking them with glee.  For example, the way the film begins, we meet this strange lizard, alone in a terrarium, doing improv acting exercises.  He’s in the back of a car, being driven through the desert, and when there’s a near-accident, his tank goes flying and shatters, and that’s it.  The humans are gone, we never see them again, and there’s no b-story subplot about Rango’s beloved owner trying to find him and be reunited with him.  That would be one of those choices that almost any studio would demand in a conventional kid’s film, but this movie quickly becomes something very strange.  The lizard with no name goes walking and finds a small town called “Dirt,” where it appears to be the 1800s, and where a variety of disturbing little critters are playing out this crazy power struggle.  All the water in the town is drying up, and people are having to sell their farms and move away, and little by little, Dirt is dying.  Creating a name for himself on the fly, “Rango” talks his way into the sheriff’s job, helping the Mayor (Ned Beatty), Beans (Isla Fisher), and the rest of the town to figure out what’s going wrong and why.

The cast all seems to be working towards the same strange end, with Johnny Depp giving a genuinely funny performance as Rango.  He’s broad at times, but there’s also a very specific sense of verbal humor that seems to be vintage Depp.  Alfred Molina, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Timothy Olyphant, and Ray Winstone all do great character work, and one of the testaments to how good they are in the film is that I had no idea who they were as I was listening.  I wasn’t thinking, “Boy, that sure does sound like Robin Williams doing his stand-up act” or “Yep, that’s very recognizably Ellen De Generes,” but instead gave up even trying to figure out who was playing what until the closing credits finally rolled by.  They simply are these weird little creatures.  Molina, for example, plays an armadillo that has been run over in the middle, smashed flat in places, and yet he’s the wise voice who sends Rango on his spirit quest in the first place.

I took Toshi with me to see the film.  He’s a kindergartener now, turns six in July, and he seemed perfectly fine with the film’s creep factor.  It is indeed disturbing to look at in places, but by design.  It’s no accident.  I think it’s the kind of creepy that kids love, and Toshi has been talking about the film since he saw it.  I’m comfortable taking my monster-loving younger son Allen to see the film when it opens, and this coming Friday is his third birthday.  He loves the trailers for “Rango,” and since I brought the storybook home from the junket, he’s been going through it, asking me questions about it.  He’s been listening to the Hans Zimmer score in the car, too, and it’s worth mentioning how funny the score is overall.  Hilarious.  There’s a huge “Raising Arizona” influence to some of it, and a knowledge of the great Western scores for both the John Ford studio era and the Leone/Morricone era that informs many of the tracks.

There’s a lushness to the world of “Rango” that would only be possible in animation, and Roger Deakins was a visual consultant on the film, which offers up yet another variation on Western iconography from this legendary cinematographer of both “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford” and “True Grit.”  And yet, none of that is necessary for younger viewers to understand or enjoy the film.  When Verbinski makes a reference to “Apocalypse Now” and Hunter S. Thompson in one fell swoop, adults will be laughing at the banjo arrangment of “Ride Of The Valkyries” for one set of reasons, and kids will simply be caught up in the chaos of the action sequence that Verbinski stages.  I think one thing that really helps with making this feel fresh is that ILM is not a company that does feature-length animation.  And yet, this is theirs, start to finish, and it’s got an organic quality that doesn’t feel like something that was put through a typical development process.  It just does what it feels like doing.  It doesn’t feel like it was tested and rebuilt according to demographic demands.  It’s a little long, and there are various gags or scenes that don’t quite land the way they seem to be intended, and the bad guy’s identity is fairly obvious from the very start… but none of that really matters.

Like I said, there’s so much about this that I do like and that really spoke to me that I’m just glad it exists.  I hope you feel the same.

“Rango” opens everywhere this Friday.