a film by Gore Verbinski

Any movie, animated or not, that can reference The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Apocalypse Now while sustaining a credible and realistic storyline, is just all right with me. Throw in Johnny Depp as an animated lizard in a Hawaiian shirt and you may just have gold in them thar hills - or in this case, water in that thar desert. In fact, please allow me to go out on the proverbial limb and say that Gore Verbinski's Spaghetti Western homage Rango, is the best film of this albeit youthful year of 2011. There, I said it.

The above was a rather bold statement for this critic, since I am not a fan of the computer-generated animation that now dominates mainstream cinema. But unlike the Pixar and/or Dreamworks movies, which are visually stunning in their way but a bit too antiseptic for my tastes (not to mention the maudlin sentimentality and cheap manipulations of the former and the self-referential, focus-group-tested pop-frantic attitude of the latter) Rango is a complex (in both story and visually) work of cinema that relies on actual filmmaking techniques instead of just the parenthetically aforementioned maudlin sentimentality, cheap manipulations and focus-group-tested pop frantic attitude.

To add to the visual side of the equation, Roger Deakins, famed, nine-time Academy Award nominated (but never a winner, sad to say) cinematographer of such succulent works as No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Revolutionary Road and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was brought in and given the great title of "cinematography consultant." This of course explains the equally succulent western-motif vistas of this movie (since, after all, animated movies have no use for an actual cinematographer) as well as the dead-on look and feel of the Spaghetti Westerns Verbinski so obviously loves. This move to animation seems effortless for Verbinski, as well it should. Before taking on the helm of the Black Pearl - again with M. Depp - Verbinski was the ad man who created the once-famed Budweiser frogs.

Now as for the story end of things goes, Rango is, ostensibly speaking, a semi-remake of Chinatown with Johnny Depp's animated lizard standing in for Jack Nicholson's battered private eye (though in more recent times it may be somewhat difficult to even differentiate between Nicholson and an animated lizard). Of course, this being a "kids movie" as they say, the more incestuous storyline of Polanski's seminal seventies neo-noir is left out. This story of a small western town (with the illustrious name of "Dirt" and is populated by a menagerie of gun-slinging lizards, possums, frogs, rats, moles, owls et al) that is quickly running out of water, thanks mainly to the unscrupulous trickery of the town's mayor (Ned Beatty voices the wheelchair bound tortoise that here "stands" in for John Huston's Noah Cross - who incidentally, Beatty styled the character after) is full of character depth and an intricate network of homage and satire both.

From the Man-With-No-Name reference (Rango is a name our intrepid chameleon takes on part way through the film) to the Lee Von Cleef-inspired killer rattlesnake gunslinger to the Abigail Breslin-voiced character homage to the Coen's recent True Grit remake (incidentally photographed by Mr. Deakins) to the apocalyptic Ride of the Valkyries (on bat wings) and everything inbetween (which includes a hilarious quick cameo by another certain Johnny Depp-played denizen of the desert - and while you are at it, go ahead and compare the Rango poster with that eerily-similar other Gonzo poster from Depp's past), Rango is more than just a mere "kids movie" as they say (again). It goes beyond that. Beyond that in a much deeper manner than the aforementioned Pixar and/or Dreamworks movies have ever managed to do, and it is in this obvious love of cinematic history (the cinephiliac kind not the Ain't That Cool film geek kind that permeates other recent animation) that Verbinski and his cohorts seem to revel in throughout the movie. Best film of 2011 so far? Sure, why the Hell not. [03/08/11]