Most animated movies aimed at the family market—even the best of them—have a familiar air, but not “Rango.” Yes, it’s a takeoff on the conventions of westerns about the outsider who comes into town and saves the day. But in attitude and style it’s distinctive and witty, walking a fine line between respectful homage and spoof, with elements of both—sort of a combination of a spaghetti western and “Blazing Saddles,” and with allusions to scads of other pictures, including “Chinatown” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” It will probably appeal more to adults than children, a rarity indeed among such studio efforts. That could be its undoing in the marketplace, but it’s something those of us who have passed the age of 21 can rejoice in.
Johnny Depp voices the title character, a pet lizard with a thespian streak actually named Lars, that’s ejected from the family car as it passes through the southwestern desert and left on its own. On advice from Roadkill (Alfred Molina), a sage old armadillo, Lars makes his way across the desert toward a town called Dirt.
This initial section of Gore Verbinski’s movie has a zany, surrealistic streak—in terms of both its widescreen visuals and its semi-ghoulish episodes—that may well leave you wondering about the sanity of the makers. It begins with a long, bizarre sequence set in the car as it speeds along, during which the lizard “directs” the inanimate objects in his terrarium in weird plots he concocts to while away the time. Then, after the lizard’s tossed off the auto, there’s the surreal sequence with Roadkill, followed by a trek through the desert that’s both harrowing and slapsticky—involving a pursuit by a bird that’s like a much grimmer Road Runner short.
Eventually Lars reaches Dirt, a time-warp desert town suffering from drought. It’s presided over by a mayor who’s a wheelchair-bound turtle (Ned Beatty) and, from his oily tones, is obviously up to no good, especially since he’s trying to persuade Beans (Isla Fisher), the not-so-lovely lass Lars meets on his journey and is quickly smitten with, to sell the family farm—the last plot of local land he hasn’t acquired—though his purpose isn’t revealed until the end.
The catalyst for the revelation is Lars’s assumption of the post of town marshal and his effort literally to play the western hero as the self-styled Rango. The role not only brings him up against some major villains—most notably a gila-monster gunslinger called Bad Bill (Ray Winstone) and a huge rattlesnake named Jake (Bill Nighy)—but also a family of thieving prairie dogs. Eventually he saves the day, of course, but not until he overcomes a major reversal of fortune with the help of a mysterious, legendary figure called the Spirit of the West (voiced cannily by Timothy Olyphant, sounding very much like somebody else).
But a paraphrase doesn’t do justice to “Rango.” John Logan’s script follows well-worn western conventions, but dresses them up with consistently amusing dialogue and situations. It also populates the screen with a gallery of memorable supporting critter characters, each a remarkable sight in its own right, including a quartet of owls who form a Mexican band and comment on the action as it proceeds. And it makes room for plenty of interludes as peculiar and fascinating as the opening set-piece—like the oddball routine the townspeople go through each day to the strains of “Clear, Cool Water.” It’s also blessed with stellar voice talent. Depp is at his most winning here—equaling the work he did in Tim Burton’s animated films—and everyone else, from Beatty on down, is superlative.
And the widescreen visuals, done with the aid of Industrial Light and Magic (and consultation from master cinematographer Roger Deakins) are simply amazing. The use of light, shade and contrast is as impressive as I any animation that’s graced an American feature before. Happily they’re matched by character animation that’s just as fine. One other aspect should be mentioned as a key to the movie’s success: it’s not in 3-D, so the images aren’t darkened and clouded by the glasses that format demands. You get to see them in all their pristine glory.
There are occasional drawbacks in “Rango.” The need to add elements to appeal to younger viewers leads to the inclusion of some protracted chase sequences and slapstick bits that seem a bit at odds with the overall tone. But for the most part the film shows a distinctive vision—Verbinski’s, if you judge from his underrated live-action “The Weather Man” and some of the weird tangents of his “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise—that it carries through without compromise. The result is an animated picture that can bear comparison to Pixar’s best—and in many ways shows an even more original spirit.