Saddle up for 'Rango'

Article Published: Mar. 10, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Saddle up for 'Rango'

Johnny Depp voices Rango the chameleon in 'Rango.'

What do Hunter S. Thompson, talking lizards, gun-toting rattlesnakes and existentialist character studies have in common?

Perhaps a page from the life of the late Gonzo journalist himself, but, in this case, "Rango."

While that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's no surprise that this year's best animated movie is aimed toward grown-ups.

It's easy to see why folks could be misled, what with the trailer promising clean family fun, eccentric characters, top-notch animation and, of course, Johnny Depp.

But like the titular character, looks can be deceiving. Taking a cue from "family films" of the '80s, "Rango" has plenty of eye candy for the kids, but also adult themes aplenty - not limited to smoking, mild cursing, violence and mind expansion.

It's a beautifully rendered homage to its cinematic forebears, from Sergio Leone to "High Noon" to "Chinatown," and director Gore Verbinski ("Pirates of the Caribbean") succeeds in walking viewers through decidedly familiar territory, but from a delightfully fun perspective.

Depp ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") lends his voice to Rango, a bumbling and eccentric chameleon who wants nothing more than to blend in - especially when he's thrust out of his comfort zone and into scorching expanses of the Mojave Desert.

He eventually arrives in Dirt, a Wild West town inhabited by desert creatures, like rancher lizard Beans (Isla Fisher, "Confessions of a Shopaholic"), rodent girl Priscilla (Abigail Breslin, "Little Miss Sunshine") and a wheelchair-bound tortoise who serves as mayor (Ned Beatty, "Deliverance").

Taking this as an opportunity to recreate himself, Rango assumes the persona of a no-nonsense, gunslinging sheriff and, after inadvertently proving his fabricated worth, is appointed to said office. His first task: Find the town's missing water.

Stuck in drought, Dirt is facing its demise, and water reserves are dwindling by the day. With his newfound friends counting on him, Rango must discover what - or who - has happened to the water before it's too late.

Along the way, he faces peril aplenty, including gun-toting lizard Bad Bill (Ray Winstone, "Beowulf"), an armed family of thieving moles led by patriarch Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton, "Alpha Dog"), and legendary - and considerably frightening - outlaw Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy, "Shaun of the Dead").

But that's not all, as Rango's journey is also one of self-discovery. As a chameleon, he can appear to be many things, though he's never considered being himself - or what that even means, for that matter.

Verbinski conveys this through simple metaphor and a search for the so-called Spirit of the West, the latter personified by Clint Eastwood's iconic Man with no Name (and voiced by Timothy Olyphant, HBO's "Deadwood"). And, fortunately, a Greek chorus of mariachi-playing owls is there to guide Rango in the right direction.

To say "Rango" is surreal would be an understatement. The film, graciously presented in 2-D for a change, bears an ethereal quality from the get-go, anthropomorphic animals notwithstanding.

Its painstaking attention to detail, specifically texture in characters and surroundings, makes its sun-dried setting surprisingly vivid and its characters almost tangible - even outright photorealistic, at times. So much so, that a younger audience could find some of them quite frightening, especially the malicious Rattlesnake Jake.

And the voice work is superb, due not only to the talented cast, but Verbinski's unconventional method of recording performances with an ensemble, rather than one-on-one in a sound booth. The result is naturally flowing dialogue that somehow lends realism to talking desert creatures.

The story, written by John Logan ("The Aviator"), Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit ("Fractalus"), follows a predictable arch, particularly for those familiar with "Chinatown" and conventional Westerns. But it's the journey - one rife with charm and well-acted characters - that counts, and Rango's is stylish, manic and fun all the way.

"Rango," rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times and additional reviews, including "The Adjustment Bureau," visit

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