A pet chameleon fancies himself an actor, his terrarium his stage, but while being transferred by his owner, a bump in the highway bounces his world out of the vehicle. Parched in the desert, the lizard meets Roadkill (voice of Alfred Molina), a resilient armadillo who advises him to look for dirt in order to find water. What he finds is the corrupt town of Dirt, mysteriously depleted of H2O, where the Mayor (voice of Ned Beatty, "Toy Story 3's" Lotso) asks him to become the Sheriff and where he invents his new personality, "Rango."
Director Gore Verbinski ("The Pirates of the Caribbean" series) was only semi-successful with his first foray into animation - of the animatronic and CGI kind - with 1997's "Mouse Hunt," but with a surprisingly adult script by John Logan ("Gladiator," "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street") and the f/x team at Industrial Light and Magic making their animated feature debut, Verbinski's scored an offbeat oddity, a classic Western with surreal elements and references to films from "Chinatown" to "Star Wars" and a committed vocal cast. If only he'd known when enough is enough - the film begins to flag in its third act when focus goes to plot over its more magical elements.
Verbinski leaves us moorless, a strange sensation, as he begins his film. A chameleon (voice of Johnny Depp) acts out a story of love with a naked headless Barbie, a wind-up plastic fish and a sword of the plastic cocktail variety. We're in his world, so it is not until he's thrown out of it that we get our bearings. It's a delightfully intriguing way to begin a film. As more real life elements get added onto the screen, one gets sucked into marveling at the dazzling animation - this is one that seems 3D without the damn glasses - and is as realistic in nature as talking animals can be rendered (this is the first non-rotoscoped animation where actors acted out their parts in costume to be turned into 'cartoons').
The story, which includes its own Greek chorus of a Mariachi owl band, sees Rango as a lizard with no name wanting to become a hero. After meeting Beans (voice of Isla Fisher, "The Wedding Crashers"), a put upon farmer he fails to impress, Rango walks into Dirt's bar and begins telling lies. When he's asked if it was he who killed the Jenkins brothers, he claims to have done so with one bullet, then learns there were 7 brothers. But Rango's legend grows as luck stays by his side while he pulls crazy stunts - like swallowing the lit cigar stub of Bad Bill (voice of Ray Winstone). When he manages to fell the hawk that occasionally threatens the citizens of Dirt, by chance with one bullet, he's called for by the Mayor. But the Mayor's weekly gathering of citizens to turn on the spout has been coming up dry and after Rango manages to cross the highway he finds out why.
There are so many characters introduced here, it's hard to keep track of them all, but they're all made individuals, sometimes cleverly so. When Rattlesnake Jake (voice of Bill Nighy) makes an appearance after his natural enemy, the hawk, has been slain, his eyes are such burning orbs you may not notice the subtle villainous pencil 'moustache' in his markings. Rango himself looks real, although, oddly, the chameleon's ability to change its color is underutilized. Beans also looks like a real, albeit different species of lizard with a wig of banana curls plopped atop her head. There's a toughened up, one-eared rabbit and the mayor's secretary is literally a fox. One of the most enjoyable characters is Priscilla (voice of Abigail Breslin, "Little Miss Sunshine"), a mousy schoolgirl who makes dour pronouncements. In another bit of dreamlike fancy, Rango is advised by the 'Spirit of the West' (voice of Timothy Olyphant doing his best Clint Eastwood impression), a 'human' cowboy who rides a golf cart stuffed full of Oscars.
Camerawork carefully follows classic Western setups - the angled overhead shot of the town's main road, the cutaways to hands of cards - when it's not reference other movies, such as substituting a real canyon for those in "Star Wars'" Death Star. Verbinski also uses some great visual sight gags, such as Rango and Bean's struggles in Dirt's water cooler 'bank vault' in the background of the action.
The film is taken down a notch by an indulgent run time, used to accommodate the multiple plot strands and one too many villain. Still, "Rango" takes time-honored film conventions and presents them through a hallucinatory prism. It's like Depp's Terry Gilliam film, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," remade as a lizard Western.
Robin did not see this film.
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