A rootin’-tootin’ reptile has taken over the Southwest, a bug-eyed, charismatic, CGI-chameleon named Rango, manically personified by Johnny Depp. When the downtrodden citizens of a drought-plagued town, aptly named Dirt, are desperate for law ‘n’ order, he appears as a lonely ‘outsider,’ searching for his identity after being accidentally liberated from the confines of his glass terrarium in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Among the first of those he encounters on his strange, often-surreal quest is Roadkill (Alfred Molina), a partially crushed armadillo who advises Rango to find “the spirit of the west” because “we all have journeys to make.” So, after concocting a story about killing seven brothers with a single bullet, Rango becomes Sheriff. But the Mayor (Ned Beatty), a wheelchair-bound turtle, has engineered the water shortage to acquire property. Rango’s feisty love interest is Beans (Isla Fisher). There’s a mariachi band of morose owls serving as a Greek chorus and a hallucinatory vision of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (Timothy Olyphant), intoning: “It’s the deed that makes the man.”
After working together on “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” and its sequels, “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End,” Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski focused on this quirky chameleon who thinks he’s a Western hero, the first full-length animated film created by Industrial Light & Magic. Unlike most animated features, the vocal tracks were not recorded individually in a sound studio. Instead, Verbinski had his actors ‘act out’ the dialogue for their scenes together, using sets, costumes and props. Despite uneven humor and slow pacing, there are cleverly cinematic allusions to the aerial assault in “Apocalypse Now,” the water/power motif in “Chinatown,” the rattlesnake tail with a machine-gun barrel in “The Wild Bunch,” and Hunter S. Thompson’s drugged tirade in the desert in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rango” is an existential, inventive, irreverent 8 – mercifully, not in 3-D, requiring no special glasses as the denizens of Dirt ride off into the sunset.