Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
A stranger bursts through the swinging doors of a saloon in a down-on-its-luck town. It's not an ordinary town, even by the standards of the Old West, and he's no ordinary stranger. He's a daydreamy chameleon in a loud Hawaiian shirt. Yes, he's a little lizard who fancies himself a dramatic hero, and now he's got to make his own way in the world ... and that fun bit of improv he performed off the cuff for the champion-hungry folk of Dirt might just turn into a full-time hero job.
Oh, yeah, and the folk of Dirt: They're not your ordinary movie-Western denizens, either. They're ornery critters in a way that no Western has ever seen before. They're visually ornery, beautifully ugly CGI creations with a downright grandeur to their unattractiveness. Toads and rats and other scurrying desert animals that have only just barely been anthropomorphized. Every reptilian scale and scabby wart and bristly hair has been lovingly rendered in photorealistic cartoon glory, and you will look upon them with shivers of hard-bitten delight.
Beatrix Potter this ain't.
And thank the movie gods for that. The creative death of Hollywood has been postponed once again, the patient lingering on life support for a little while longer thanks to perhaps its last practitioners of cinematic originality: the makers of animated films. Rango isn't just a great feature-length cartoon: it's effortlessly the best movie of 2011 so far, and it's the best Western in ages. How can it be that a kiddie movie is wiser and funnier and more relevant than the Coen Brothers' True Grit?
Rango is, in fact, what a Coens' animated flick might look like and sound like, if they got an assist from Terry Gilliam. This is a deeply weird and deeply demented movie, and thrillingly so. Rango (the voice of Johnny Depp) experiences a bizarre nightmare during his first thirsty night in the desert, a surrealistic dream sequence the likes of which many films supposedly for grownups wouldn't dare.
Director Gore Verbinski does not hesitate to import some of the creepier visual concepts from his Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Screenwriter John Logan (Sweeney Todd, The Aviator) is not afraid to touch on tricky matters of death wishes and a spirituality that goes beyond pat clichés. (The demigod-like Spirit of the West makes an appearance, and hoo boy, who knew Gore Verbinski could sound so much like Clint Eastwood?)
The plot that needs a hero to make things right revolves around Dirt's economy, which runs on the water that is running out. Danged if this here kiddie cartoon isn't a metaphor for the ongoing economic crisis.
It's not at all prettified. It's not in 3D. It's chock full of animals drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. It's full of innuendo that is actually clever and sly and will go so far over the kiddies' heads that they won't even think to ask what the nice chameleon meant when he said that. And it features an honest-to-god cameo by an animated Hunter S. Thompson. What is Hollywood coming to with Rango?
And more importantly, how can we ensure that it stays there?