Saturday, March 5, 2011

Imagine, if you will, some guys staying up all hours on a bong and highball fueled night talking their way through a marathon of classic Westerns. As they plow a deep crevasse through Western film history, they start hatching an idea for a genre bending, hilarious mash-up of computer animated comedy and Western parody a la Blazing Saddles, with odes to (and much love for) Sergio Leone and the Coen Brothers.

Or imagine two players powerful enough in temperamental Tinseltown to let imaginations run willy nilly wild.

Thanks to the twisty fates, every once in a while these subversive individualists slip through the Hollywood cookie cutter long enough to build a career and enough cash to get interesting inventive movies greenlit. These movies become cult classics at the very least, or if luck and timing is on their side, historic blockbusters. Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp are two such mavericks.

Together with Industrial Light and Magic, who create all the CGI in their first animated feature, Verbinski, his frequent lead actor Depp, and a great cast that includes Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, and Ned Beatty, create an inspired, inventive, and singular flick that’s a crazy ride most viewers will enthusiastically enjoy. While there’s enough slapstick, excitement, and action to appeal to slightly older kids, the movie really belongs to the adults, and to true movie fans everywhere.

The basic gist of the story is a flamboyant Hunter S. Thompson hawaiian shirt-wearing chameleon happens on the town of Dirt and its inhabitants, who are at their parched wits end as the last bit of water is drying up. No one knows where all the water is going, and morale is lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut. When a misunderstanding leads to said chameleon coming off as a lone gunslinging hero, the mayor offers him the job as sheriff. He embraces the role and creates a new persona to fit the bill. Thusly ensues a series of events and interactions that allow for a crazy tripped out plot involving close calls, a sweet romance, an inevitable showdown, betrayal and humiliation, a clan of hundreds of moles and prairie dogs, a rattlesnake in a cowboy hat and gatling gun rattler, and mystical shambling cacti. The chameleon, who has named himself “Rango”, is destined to undergo a spiritual Castaneda-esque shamanic journey to self acceptance partly fueled by dehydrated desert hallucinations. “No man can walk out on his own story”, Rango is advised when at his lowest. Unlikely any of the audience will walk out on his story either. This long strange trip is too wacky, wonderful, surprisingly deep, and a hoot throughout.

Not that it doesn’t have its derivations: It’s a wagon ride down the classic Western memory lane for aficionados everywhere…. there’s The Magnificent Seven, Rio Bravo, High Noon, Fistful of Dollars…. the downtrodden & motley assemblage of a one horse town trying to wiggle out from under the thumb of a moneyed or gun-toting bully before being squashed, and the unlikely, ill equipped hero that takes up their conflict as his own. There are all the usual Western archetypes, but animation allows the freedom of them being represented as an assortment of scruffy desert critters, and in true Leone fashion, all in need of a good scrubbing. Highlights include a grizzle whiskered bobcat, a spider undertaker sporting top hat & multiple horn-rimmed glasses, a preteen cactus mouse in pigtails, an Indian scout “Wounded Bird” the Chihuahuan raven, and a French red fox bar floozy. The narration is offered by a Greek chorus of musical mariachi owls-who at one point all appear for narration and music hanging from nooses-and this chorus includes a guitarist played by Verbinski, who’s musical chops spring from playing in punk bands as a teenager.

To the quirky individualists making up a substantial percentage of the moviegoing John Q Public, I say scuttle, trot, or gallop down to your very nearest multiplex and joyfully hand over your hard earned cash, potentially more than once, to see this peculiar paragon, this fantastic flying freak flag of a movie. It’s one Western that’s a long cold drink of (LSD laced) water.