It's not often that 10 minutes into an animated kid's movie, you catch a quick glimpse Hunter S. Thompson, tripped out on mescaline, driving straight into bat country while his Samoan attorney wallows in the back seat. But that's exactly what we see--if only for a split second--as Rango, the little green pet lizard unleashed into the wild west, gets flattened onto the drugged up journalist's windshield before being sent flying into the middle of the Mojave desert.
Why not? Johnny Depp, who plays Rango, has always been a big fan of Thompson, playing him in Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and narrating his life story in a 2008 documentary. And few prudes are going to notice or care that someone so un-family friendly made his way into such a brief cameo. Still, the intrusion of Thompson was surprising for a different reason. Never before have I seen such high profile players as Depp and writer-director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Carribean), so consciously throwing practical restraint to the wind for the sake of their own enjoyment (although Depp's irreverent Captain Jack Sparrow was a good start). Rango is what you get when two people with lots of success and nothing to lose decide to have some fun with 135 million dollars.
There's a lot more where that came from. Verbinski and Depp take the opportunity to unleash a dangerous stash of classic film references, well-worn cliches, and general wackiness. The plot, involving stolen water and a town running dry, with Rango trying to uncover the conspiracy behind it, comes straight from Chinatown. Stylistically, the film is pure spaghetti western (well, there's some Ford western, too); more hommage is paid to Leone, Eastwood, and Morricone here than in Tarantino's entire oeuvre. An Apocalypse Now style chase scene set to a hick version of Ride of The Valkyries is just ludicrous enough to be inspired. For added theatrics, Rango continually recites Shakespeare and a quartet of owls provides us with a Mexican-Greek chorus.
This may sound like a recipe for nothing but self conscious semi-cleverness, but there's much that makes Rango more than the sum of its references. For one, it's actually clever. Rango's search for identity is first presented in a meta monologue that would hold up well under careful analysis. The film is also astoundingly beautiful--this is the first time George Lucas's ILM has worked on an animated film--with precise detail given to everything from the parched desert earth to trippy talking cactuses. The story is engrossing, the odd-looking characters either sympathetic and interesting or genuinely scary, and the message (all kiddy movies have one) welcome. Most animated features will follow the "just be yourself" route, but Rango welcomes invention and fabrication. Rango transforms himself from nameless pet lizard to western hero, and despite his fakery (he's not a real hero--just an actor), his imagination, his willingness to create something from a blank slate, is rewarded.
I must admit that I rarely see an animated film that isn't, in some way, juvenile. Rango embraces the scatological humor and sexual innuendo that Pixar tends to avoid. This stuff can alternate between amusing and grating, and some of it, such as a reference to prostate exams, is so direct as to just seem strange. But who wants Pixar all the time? Rango is touching, funny, and considerably weirder than anything else out there. It takes so much delight in its own oddball ingenuity that you can't help but play along.