(Johnny Depp, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Alfred Molina, Ray Winstone, et al / PG / 82 mins)
Overview: Helmer Gore Verbinksi (Pirates of the Caribbean) directs this family-oriented animated adventure starring the voice of Johnny Depp as a family pet who leaves the comfort of home in order to explore the outside world. John Logan (The Aviator) provides the script for the Paramount Pictures production. Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Alfred Molina, Ray Winstone, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ned Beatty provide the voices for the rest of the cast.
Verdict: Rango is a chameleon with decent intentions, thespian dreams and identity issues. And the same could be said about this computer-animated movie.
It aims at an adult audience with wide-ranging cultural and cinematic references, from journalist Hunter S. Thompson, artist Salvador Dali, author Carlos Castaneda, "spaghetti Western" filmmaker Sergio Leone and the 1974 movie Chinatown. It also uses a kind of True Grit-like verbose, polysyllabic dialogue, which Johnny Depp pulls off adroitly.
But the level of humor — much of it distinctly of the bathroom variety — is aimed squarely at the under-13 set. The result is an odd, occasionally engaging but often cacophonous mishmash. As the amiable voice of Rango, Depp re-teams with Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski in this postmodern Western.
The generic chase scenes and explosions that come in the film's final third are an effort to appeal to action fans, but they add a further confounding layer.
Still, it has one strong asset: a stylish look that doesn't fall for the overused 3-D trap. It's a pleasure to see a vividly animated movie without those glasses. It's not that an animated film can't be a hybrid. Toy Story 3 played to audiences of all ages and nimbly blended pop culture and kid-friendly humor. But that easy agility is lacking here. Mostly, this feels like an ambitious undertaking with some awkward tangents, executed unevenly.
Our hero, Rango, favors Hawaiian shirts and imagines inanimate toys to be his actor buddies in his lonely terrarium existence. But unexpected events dump him in the vast Mojave desert.
In those wide open spaces, he meets a sage armadillo (Alfred Molina), who directs him on a path to enlightenment. Depp fans will particularly appreciate a scene in which Rango lands briefly on the windshield of the convertible from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with Depp's Thompson character from the 1998 film inside the car.
After stumbling through the desert, chased by a persistent hawk, Rango comes upon a whole town of potential friends. The town, called Dirt, is suffering a stultifying drought and is run by a power-mad tortoise mayor (Ned Beatty). "You control the water, you control the desert" is his repeated mantra, recalling Chinatown.
Rango bursts into the town eager to make a good impression. He convinces the furry denizens that he's a tough guy who can help them with their "aquatic conundrum," during one of the film's most entertaining scenes in a local hangout. (Think Star Wars bar meets old Western saloons.) He just wanted some pals, but somehow he's become the town's savior.
Rango strikes sparks with a different species of lizard, a spunky gal named Beans (Isla Fisher), who has spells of freezing up, which she explains are a defense mechanism. This is a running joke — as well as a nice piece of science education for the kiddies — that works into the movie's gentle dollop of romance.
The animals are a strange-looking, sometimes surrealistic lot. Some are so stylized that their species is hard to identify. A few wear elaborate garb; others sport just a cowboy hat. The Greek chorus, a mariachi band of singing owls, is a clever touch.
Rango, like the character, has no lack of enthusiasm and inventive style. Its strong suit is visual panache. It's too bad that consistent comedy and emotional resonance get lost amid the dust and cacti.