'Rango' a wild Western roundup

Johnny Depp voices Rango, a chameleon who becomes sheriff.
Johnny Depp voices Rango, a chameleon who becomes sheriff.
Posted: March 04, 2011

The hero of "Rango" is a chameleon and a BS artist, appropriate for this shape-shifting, surreal and weirdly entertaining animated yarn.

I won't say it's like nothing you've ever seen before - it has the grown-up cinematic ambition of Pixar, the elbow-in-the-ribs joshing of DreamWorks - but what it borrows and what it builds combine to feel original and strange.

The cultural references, for instance, are rarefied - a cameo for Hunter S. Thompson, plot fragments from "Chinatown" (there's a turtle with the visage of John Huston), audio from "Once Upon a Time in the West," musical tributes to Ennio Morricone, and a final appearance by the Man With No Name, who by this point doesn't need one.

And lest the references seem too high-tone or exclusive, there is a healthy homage to Bob Hope and "Son of Paleface." The title character here is a mouthy lizard and would-be actor who's dropped into a rough-and-tumble Old West town and survives by pretending to be a fearsome gunslinger.

Rango (voice of Johnny Depp) is appointed sheriff by the fearful townsfolk (moles, rabbits, snakes, mice and other critters, wrought by George Lucas' crew at Industrial Light & Magic), who carefully guard their water supply in the face of a fierce and persistent drought.

And other, more sinister threats. Even as the town is running dry, guardians of the dwindling water reserves are found dead in the desert - drowned.

This may not sound very funny, and it won't be, if you are not well-versed in visual and narrative features of classic movies. "Rango" is not for younger children (it's also long), and I don't know that even older kids will be hip to the way the movie plays around in our cinematic subconscious.

Still, there are enough whimsical, sharply drawn animated characters to keep a broader, younger audience entertained. Rango's bulging-eyed chameleon is an offbeat, affecting hero, playfully presented - his fate is updated throughout by a Greek chorus (actually a band of mariachi owls).

Rango bumbles his way ever closer to revealing the town's dusty secrets, falls in love with a local lizard girl (Isla Fisher) and eventually tries to set things right by summoning the elusive Spirit of the West.

"Rango" itself is suffused with it. Director Gore Verbinski and consultant Roger Deakins use the flexibility of computer animation to mimic the classic lensing of big-screen Westerns, from John Ford (his Monument Valley vistas) to Sergio Leone, whose vertiginous perspectives are lovingly recreated.

Rarely has warmed-over spaghetti tasted this good.

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