(Gore Verbinski, 2011)
A true oddity, this Spaghetti Western for 8 year olds feels thrillingly original and bold in a cinematic genre (the animated Childrens film) as filled with mediocrity and outright trash as any other. While it may feature a quite slavish devotion to Joseph Campbell's "Heroes Journey" principals, much of the finer detail here is marked by genuine eccentricity. The character design is bizarre; sometimes ugly, often beautiful, occasionally hilarious, these fascinating animal players look like no other cast.
The hero embodies the films oddness. Voiced brilliantly by Johnny Depp, Rango is a chameleon-fantasist, with a thriving inner life and a highly developed sense of drama. He hams his way through the story and it's perils until forced to take it all seriously in the final act, and is introduced by an almost daring monologue interrupted by a sudden and violent event which provides instant context and begins the plot.
Verbinski's experience with big set-pieces is a boon here, where he can let his imagination go and orchestrate absolute mayhem, but this film has more wit and originality than all of the Pirates films combined.
Not that it's all originality; the plot is lifted from Chinatown and there are references to numerous Westerns throughout (a ghostly Clint Eastwood - voiced by Timothy Olyphant - even appears to Rango as the "Spirit of the West" during the films long, imaginative fantasy stretch), but they are at the service of the narrative rather than driving it.
Visually, the film is rather extraordinary. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins repeats the work he did as "visual consultant" on How to Train Your Dragon last year with even more impressive results. This pitiless desert sun is precisely evoked, the various textures of life in a frontier town indelibly, precisely captured. Drought is a key plot point, and Rango made me thirsty, no small achievement.
Most importantly, Rango works. As a Western, as a comedy, as a film for children and adults. And it needs no 3D gimmickry to sell itself.