Rango is a real Western, not simply a kiddy flick screwing around with genre staples.

I was more or less expecting Rango to be a light kiddie movie with some gorgeous visuals and maybe some sophisticated jokes/dialogue thrown in to please the adults. I figured hey, this is Gore Verbinski playing with the Western genre. I love the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy so I had faith that this would be a fun flick if nothing else.

What I didn’t expect was that Rango was going to be a full-on existential Western. It not only uses the genre conventions that familiarize it to us as such, it creates a story that flouts the usual “End of the West” theme and instead repositions the Western as a metaphor for new beginnings and self-actualization. In the classic mode, the Western was about lawlessness and frontier justice (and Rango includes these tropes), it was also about carving out a place in the world and creating civilization both by eschewing values and programs that don’t work in favor of ones that do. Rango has a light-hearted attitude toward community and goes for the obvious tycoon (in this case a water tycoon, which is awesome) villainy, but it’s that this is all clearly thought out that impresses me.

Rango, who we never know by any other name, is a pet suffering an identity crisis. He doesn’t know who he is or where his place in the world happens to be, but he fancies himself an actor (but is more of a daydreamer maybe) who can be anyone. Tossed into the wider world by circumstance, his journey is largely about living out his own fantasies of heroism and romance (in the old school definition of the world). Through a combination of luck and charm he ingratiates himself to the locals of a town called Dirt and has many misadventures figuring out what’s going on with the water the town is utterly dependent on. He’s a buffoon until he figures out that he really does have Rango inside of him. He resolves his existential malaise by assuming the mantle of a persona he has created from qualities that really do exist inside him. It’s a good little bit of philosophical message that will sail right over kids’ heads but is delivered in such a way as to conform to simplistic ideas about stepping up for your friends and accepting the consequences of falsehood honorably.

Aside from the interesting ideas going on here, the best part is the varied cast of colorful characters that populate Dirt and provide the support and conflict Rango needs to find himself. Each of his friends are interesting creations with quirks and personalities that pop, even when they aren’t given much to do or say. I’m sure everyone in the audience will have their favorites but mine was a toss up between the wise Native American crow and the little desert mouse “old prospector” guy. The antagonists, Rattlesnake Jake and The Mayor (a wheelchair bound turtle, fucking awesome) are also perfect. Rattlesnake Jake in particular is an awesome, awesome character and the movie bounds out of greatness and almost to the level of sublimity in his introduction scene. Also worth mentioning on her own is Beans, the lizard love-interest with just a bit of Maddie Ross thrown in. Her no-nonsense, rustic poetry (dialogue, I’m saying!) is a treat for the ears.

A lot of critics are making a big deal out of the film references that Rango makes. I’ll admit that the couple of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas bits are out of place and weird (though fun in their own way), there’s still the Spirit of West to consider. Looking like Clint Eastwood and voiced by Timothy fucking Olyphaunt, the scene where we finally meet him is just too perfectly weird and funny to not elevate the film still further. It helps that the movie is hilarious, both visually and stemming from the characters and dialogue.

This is a glowing fucking review. That is because Rango is going to be one of the best, most unexpected movies of the year. ILM’s first animated feature means a new player is on the stage that Pixar has steadily owned for the last 10 years. With Dreamworks also stepping up their game, it seems like a golden age of smart, well-crafted animated films that really are fun for the whole family. It’s not enough to fully erase the sting of not getting his R-rated Bioshock movie, but if Gore Verbinski keeps this shit up I’m going to be singing his praises as one of the most underrated directors in Hollywood for a long time to come.

See Rango, guys. Don’t dismiss it as either a kiddy flick or a Johnny Depp quirkathon. For while it incorporates the best parts of both those entities, it is far, far more besides.