The definitive sign that Johnny Depp was not like the other children in Hollywood was not Edward Scissorhands, but the 1995 utterly bonkers Jim Jarmusch western Dead Man. What made it special was not that it was as mad as a bag of hammers, but that Depp had to have known going in that it would never make a dime, and he did it anyway. At that point, it was finally clear that Depp was more interested in being crazy than in making money, and everyone could relax and wait to see just how crazy it would get.
Rango is, among other things, a partial remake of Dead Man, inasmuch as Johnny Depp is playing a city slicker who finds himself in the wild west and way over his head after what really ought to be a fatal injury. It's also a remake of about eleventy hundred other things, most notably Chinatown, but probably also Blazing Saddles, Pale Rider and I imagine pretty much everything else Gore Verbinski could remember while he doodled it onto the world's tallest stack of bar napkins. I mean that in the nicest way; Rango is fun partly because the gags have been set up for it by better-known movies we've already seen and liked.
Rango was one the early casualties of my trip to the Hidden City, whose fleapit programmes as though everyone in the City still had acne and a room temperature IQ, and consequently never shows anything likely to appeal to anyone with a vote. Despite being a CGI cartoon, Rango looked far too grown up and edgy for the management, and so it's only now, when I picked up a copy for £4 in Sainsbury's, that I finally got a chance to see it.
Kids' movies these days always seem to have something wedged in to cheer up the babysitters, so that most of the high-budget CGI cartoons of the last few years are an uneasy straddle between dumb jokes for the kids and kid-safe smart jokes for the adults. When it works, you get Up or Despicable Me, when it doesn't, you get Alice in Wonderland. Rango, on the other hand, feels more like a movie for adults (rather childish adults, it's true) which just happens to be safe for children to watch. I say this as something remarkable, but it occurs to me as I say it that when I was a kid, pretty much all the movies on TV happened to be safe for kids to watch. Of course in those days we were busy betting on the dinosaur races and starching our crinolines; how times change.
Rango is great fun; it's been a while since I watched a comedy which made me laugh out loud at the silly bits. The animation is very clever, not least in how they somehow managed to get a wonky looking chameleon with a lopsided head to look and move like Johnny Depp. Rango doesn't look at all like Johnny Depp, and yet somehow he's just like him. It's not just the voice acting; I suspect it would still work even if you had a completely different actor voicing the character. Mind you, Depp owns not just the character but the movie; for big stretches he's the only thing in it, and he's always the focal point. Good thing he's excellent, as he often is when he's playing a guy who's so far out of his depth that the only option left is to pretend to be a hero and hope everyone else falls for it.
The elevator pitch must have been "What if we made a movie where Johnny Depp is the city slicker who becomes the sheriff of a Wild West town which is living through the water-swindle plot of Chinatown and, oh yeah, everyone in the movie is some kind of small animal?" "Johnny Depp, you say?" Ridiculously, that's more or less all there is to it, but as with all movies, it's all in the details. The town of Dust is lovingly visualised, and full of echoes of all the great westerns. The characters are a wonderful mixture of scruffiness and telling little details which pop them to life. The writing is nice and sharp, and just absurd enough to be funny when it needs to be. It's fun to watch. I suspect that it would stand up to repeat viewings as you try to puzzle out all the references you missed the first time. It's littered with throwaways; Rango gets bounced around a highway for a frenetic five minutes at the beginning of the movie, and in and among the stunts, there's a moment where he smacks into the windscreen of a car being driven by the spitting image of Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Five seconds, and we're on to the next thing; it's there for anyone who knows the book or the movie, and then it's gone, because life is short and they still need to glue Rango to the mudflap of a passing truck. There's another great moment when Rango tries to blend with the landscape and fails spectacularly (wearing a Hawaiian shirt at the same time was probably not the way to start…); it's funny, and then when Johnny Depp protests "It's an art more than a science!" it's somehow hilarious.
Usually when I like something this much, no-one else does, but somewhat to my surprise Rango actually made its money back. So weirdly, and much against the odds, Johnny Depp went out and made something completely bonkers, and it made money too. I imagine that Gore Verbinksi repeats this to himself as a soothing mantra while he tries to get to sleep each night between now and whenever the much troubled Johnny-Depp-plays-Tonto-with-a-bird-on-his-head Lone Ranger finally gets to the screen.