We live in the era of the mash-up, where the act of combining old content into something new is considered just as artistic as creating the content in the first place. If that's what passes for originality these days, then Rango is a creative tour de force. The new animated film from Nickelodeon incorporates not just the tropes of the Western genre, but also allusions to specific films like Chinatown, The Three Amigos, Star Wars and, most meta of all, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Rango sports a Hawaiian shirt and at one point is nearly run over by a car like the one driven by Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo). There's a fine line between homage and all-out stealing; Rango comes close at times, but wisely avoids crossing over into blatant rip-off territory.
Johnny Depp reunites with Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski in this tale of a chameleon with an identity crisis (get it?) who discovers the hero inside of him thanks to the residents of a little town in the Mojave Desert called Dirt. Depp plays Rango with all the range and gusto he usually devotes to his characters. The urge to cast A-list actors to voice animated projects is understandable – there's a certain cachet associated with big names above titles – but it's not always the best idea (I'm looking at you Brad and Angelina). Depp has always relied on more than his good looks, though (and, in fact, often consciously works against them) to convey expression and emotional depth. He's the total package, and he elevates any project he's attached to, including this one.
Depp's Rango is a cipher, motivated not by a sense of justice or morality, but by an existential search for himself. He's thrown into the role of sheriff by the desperate citizens of a drought-plagued town filled with stock (some might say cliche) Western characters, but the part of hero is just something he's trying on for size, like the boots coveted by young Priscilla, a plucky mouse voiced by Abigail Beslin. The town's real champion is Beans (Isla Fisher), a self-determined iguana who is skeptical of Rango at first, but eventually develops an affection towards him.
The film opens in a contemporary setting, revealing Rango as a house pet who is lost along the highway during a cross-country trip. When he eventually stumbles into Dirt, it feels like a theme park-version of an old west town, complete with all the expected establishments and architectural features – saloon, bank, jailhouse, boot hill. Writer John Logan uses the conventions of the genre as a kind of shorthand for the audience. You know instantly what to expect from a character like gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), but that predictability also works against the film at times. It's pretty clear from the first time we meet him that Dirt's mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty) is not the benevolent civil servant he presents himself to be.
The look of Rango is also rooted in familiar cinematic inspiration, conveyed by some amazing CG animation by Industrial Light & Magic. This is the first animated feature from the special effects studio founded by George Lucas, and they've nailed it right out of the gate. The movie is gorgeous, from the first frame to the last, and the character designs are undeniably endearing (they actually manage to make lizards cute and cuddly). As it's been widely reported, cinematographer Roger Deakins (who really should have won an Oscar this year for his work on True Grit, but that's a gripe for another day) acted as a consultant on the film, and his influence is evident in everything from the vast desert vistas to the sunlight filtering through the trees to a hallucinogenic quest on a bleached-out spirit plane. Pixar still sets the standard when it comes to marrying stunning visuals, compelling characters and fully realized story, but this is the closest an animated feature has come in a long time to that level of quality.
Parents may be bothered by the film's logistical problems – for instance, the villain's insidious plan is never fully explained and the issue of the food chain is barely touched upon – but their kids won't care as they laugh at the slapstick antics of Rango and his pals (they sure did in the screening I attended). This may be an admirable, attractive-looking effort on the part of Verbinski and company, but it ultimately amounts to little more than a postmodern pastiche made up of recycled and remixed elements from other, better, films.