It is difficult these days to associate Hollywood with pleasant surprises. Releases are so aggressively micromanaged and carefully marketed, pre-marketed, and teased out that even when a blockbuster you weren’t expecting to be good comes out and shines, it doesn’t feel shocking; more one of two likely outcomes in a Schrödinger scenario. You’re happy enough, sure, but this isn’t groundbreakingly exciting to you.

Step forward Rango, Paramount’s $145 million surprise of early 2011. Gore Verbinski reuniting with Johnny Depp – then still near the top of what has become a long and painful slide – for an animated comedy about a lizard hadn’t set many people’s hearts alight, especially when prepended with the phrase “Nickelodeon presents”. The trailer didn’t help: anthropomorphic animal character wanders into a small town, pretends to be a hero, and then has to save the town? Depp audibly gurns from beginning to end? Two things we’ve all seen a hundred times before, and from the man who brought us the Pirates of Diminishing Returns series, no less. How the hell did this turn out so well?

It’s worth starting with the actual plot, because it’s really not as simple as that trailer makes out. Yes, an unnamed chameleon must convince the ornery locality of “Dirt” of his dangerous credentials, and dubs himself “Rango”. Yes, Rango finds himself in a fight with the dreaded local hawk, kills the hawk, and gets hailed a hero. But suffusing all this is not your typical narrative of convenience or cowardice; Rango is merely a stray, trying to give himself an identity. Our introduction to him is surely one of the strangest opening scenes in recent American animation: rambling at himself amid a series of bizarre props, ruminating on dramatic conflict and praising his giant wind-up goldfish. Our hero, as the mariachi narrator points out, has yet to join his own story.

So it is that when Rango is accidentally crushing a large hawk, the farcical madness of the situation is more palpable than it otherwise could’ve been. Not quite a sleazy, manipulative chancer, yet not quite an object of pity, Rango is more a down-the-line naif with a trippily questionable grip on reality. Verbinski and screenwriter John Logan take us through certain motions with speed and facility, never content to condescend with drawn-out retreads of the motifs we know and groan at. When accidentally helping a trio of villains through his own obliviousness, Rango is presented not as an obnoxious, self-regarding blowhard but as an airy madman; more in line with Robert Altman and Elliott Gould’s mumbling, strung-out vision of Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye.

Gore Verbinski_Rango

Courtesy of: Paramount

And if it’s more esoteric cinema allusions you want, then you’ve come to the right place. Rango takes studio animation’s typical fetish for pop-culture references and dials it up to… no, that one’s too obvious. Either way, soon enough, the plot takes on heavy shades of Chinatown and early Jodorowsky, which of course make oodles of sense to a preteen audience. Ditto leftfield jokes about prostitution, alcoholism and prostate checkups, not to mention a line about Kim Novak and a “cameo” from Hunter S. Thompson. It may not have quite clicked with the mainstream, but Rango more than earns its stripes through such bullish willingness to connect with viewers on its wavelength, and its terms.

Is this something to be celebrated? Willful obscurantism? That’s a separate argument. The point is that every inch of this film has been designed with everything but complacency. The weird jokes, like everything else here, come from a place of genuine investment in a way you can’t really claim for a large number of Hollywood’s current animated crop. It certainly makes concessions to certain archetypes, and makes sure to include regular action set-pieces (well, it is a Verbinski film… ) – but ultimately Rango is a work of loopy beauty, from the literate script to the strangely believable cast, almost all of whom were chosen less for star power than for their clear accomplishment as voice artists.

This extends to the star himself. As of 2017, this is still Depp’s last great role, and in many ways his performance demonstrates why: the marquee-topper never once dominates proceedings with what had by this point become a clear schtick, instead resettling into the “character actor” nook that had made him such an accomplished actor before Verbinski had initially got his hooks in. Anyone else remember those halcyon pre-Jack Sparrow days? Because that’s what Depp does here. For the last decade plus, saying “Johnny Depp puts on a bit of a voice” has been a death knell for quality. In Rango, he creates a subtle blend of his own druggish daze and a sort of neurotic tremor, delightfully adding a touch of Kermit the Frog to bring it all home. For an actor already synonymous with complacency shortly before Rango‘s release, Depp perhaps embodies the surprising pleasure of this project.

But ultimately, it’s an animated film – it’d be nothing without the visuals, and this is where it delivers the most. Rango is one of the most beautifully conceived and executed animated films of all time, period. The town of Dirt is a production designer’s dream, and each of the unsettlingly realistic characters a major innovation in texture that arguably wouldn’t find its match until another half-decade later, in Disney’s Zootropolis. There is always a slight breeze in this film, and frequent sonic motifs of glass rattling and machines clacking. When Verbinski stills the camera, he often creates compositions of startling, skewed brilliance that owe much to other oddball stylists such as the Coen brothers and Tim Burton, and this is one of those singular films where such rarefied comparisons truly make sense.

Not least because of that other lens through which Rango gains some film-freak street cred: Roger Deakins. His visual consultant credit here came during a transitional period for the star cinematographer – after a couple of similar runs for Pixar (Wall-E) and DreamWorks (How to Train Your Dragon), Deakins was experimenting with digital filming for the first time, using the sci-fi dud In Time as a test run during production on Rango. Arguably this would top the lot in terms of Deakins’ animation consultancy: the faithful focus style, diverse uses of lighting, an actual, incredible, honest-to-god shot of dust settling (this was made in a computer), and even a number of nighttime and sundown scenes that (whisper it) actually better Wall-E are all, yet again, testament to the care that went into this film.

Roger Deakins_Rango

Courtesy of: Paramount

Rango is not quite perfect. It falls into tonal problems halfway through, and frequently veers into uncertainty over what to do with its supporting cast. Verbinski seems torn between his more personal vision of a ramshackle, dreamy absurdism and something more financially viable. But Rango, being as it is a $135m movie with the attitude of the $60m Coraline, should be held as some kind of manifesto for what Hollywood animation can be doing right now. Disney may be enjoying a second renaissance, but at the level of style they keep retreading the same ground as ever; parts of their films, in fact, seem lifted from DreamWorks, who seem to have largely cashed in whatever potential they used to pop up with. Studio Ghibli has closed up, while Aardman and Laika continue to struggle finding the box office receipts they deserve. Even Pixar are looking complacent, particularly when compared to their near-mythic half-decade run immediately preceding Rango.

It boils down to simple descriptive facts: here we have an acid western intended for a wide audience, and one which largely succeeds. We have a film that not only animates water convincingly, but bothers to show you the vaporous smears on the inside of a glass. We have a film that archly lampshades its own metaphors about identity, but still has the good grace to create exquisite visual symbols and speak in earnest. It’s sort of a paranoid financial crisis satire, but with moments of fantastic physical farce. Rango may be relatively forgotten (despite its Best Animated Feature Oscar win), but it merits constant rediscovery and reevaluation as one of the weirdest things ever released by a major studio for a family market. Like the surrealists it takes several visual cues from, it is best sometimes to subvert from within.

Gore Verbinski, director of Mouse Hunt, the Ring remake, and no fewer than four Bad Religion videos, is an Academy Award winner. And for Rango, it’ll always be well deserved.