Johnny Depp did not have a vintage 2010 - Alice In Wonderland and The Tourist were both critical, if not commercial, flops. With the return of Pirates Of The Caribbean (whose director, Gore Verbinski, helms this too) one could be forgiven for thinking that 2011 might follow suit. This semi-surrealist big-budget animation is an unexpected then - not least because it is very good.
It's the story of a domesticated chameleon (Rango, voiced by Depp) who is accidentally freed as his glass tank falls from the back of a pick up on a two-lane blacktop somewhere in the American West. Narrowly avoiding various perils of the desert he stumbles upon the town of Dirt, populated by a range of anthropomorphic animals (a motley range of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians), ruled over by a suspicious mayor (Ned Beatty, for whom charismatic-yet-sinister animations are becoming a stock-in-trade) who may or may not be behind the Dirt's chronic water shortage. Rango, a coward but also a natural dramatic, convinces the townsfolk he is a badass gunslinger from even further west, unwittingly becoming the leader of a resistance to the conspiracy that cloaks the town.
The references are manifold, with nods (subtle or otherwise) to Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, El Topo, Naked Lunch, Dead Man, the Roadrunner cartoons and myriad westerns. The touchstones, though, are Once Upon A Time In The West and Chinatown. Stylistically, ...West dominates the film, particularly the soundscape (Sergio Leone geeks, a community to which I loosely belong, will be in hog heaven spotting the various elements of the sound design that are borrowed in Rango). And just as Leone himself recreated scenes word-for-word or shot-for-shot from older westerns, so in Rango some scenes are lifted almost directly from Once Upon A Time In The West - albeit acted out by talking snakes and terrapins.
Themes and dialogue from Chinatown are also used liberally, not least the main plot maguffin of who's-dumping-water-in-the-desert-and-why (incidentally, if you haven't seen Chinatown stop reading this review right now, go and get hold of a copy and watch it. Go on. Now) and it's fair to say that Ned Beatty as the mayor is capably channelling John Huston's sinister geniality as Noah Cross, one of the great villains of cinema.
Let's not dwell too long on the nerdy stuff though: this is a very sweet and very funny film. It's obviously a labour of love from Verbinski - no by-the-numbers studio flick has this kind of charm and quirk - and it's as much a love letter to the craft of storytelling as it is a tribute to beloved modern classics. As noted above, there are surrealist leanings in the film, though we're definitely at the poppy, Dali end of the scale - dream sequences of floating wind-up fish and so on, rather than Ernst-ish tableaux of doom.
And let's talk about the cast. Directors seem happy to indulge Johnny Depp these days, but he's under control here and pitches the mixture of cowardice and bravado just right. The stellar support - Abigail Breslin, Ray Winstone, Alfred Molina, Isla Fischer (with a convincing wild-west accent) and Harry Dean Stanton included - all put in perfectly sound performances, as do some of the less well known voice artists. Ned Beatty's solid turn I mentioned earlier, and Bill Nighy does a convincing Henry Fonda as the vicious baddy Rattlesnake Jake.
Last but not least, the animation: it is wonderful. The rendering is pristine (particularly the furry creatures, who don't have a hair out of place) and the effects are marvellous throughout, as you might expect of Industrial Light & Magic first feature-length animation. Roger Deakins, the Coen brothers' cinematographer of choice is credited as cinematography consultant, which no doubt influenced the glorious photorealistic desert shots. However, you wouldn't want to over-credit the well-known industry figure; the unsung heroes are the small legion of artists and animators who have put together the finest-looking CG animation I've yet seen - including anything by the mighty Pixar.
One worry I have about the film is its success, or otherwise. I do like to see good films doing well at the box office, but I'm just not sure this is being pitched right. In the UK at least it seems to be aimed at the kids' market when it is very much a film for adults, and cineliterate adults at that. Also, it's a touch too long (and I'm getting tired of saying that) and, fundamentally, it's a pastiche of a pastiche - very inventive, yes, but I'm not sure if it will have the longest of shelf-lives, and it lacks the universality of other (particularly Pixar and Disney) animated films.
Nevertheless, it's an unexpected delight and therefore gets a fabby: