Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: "Rango"

A neon-colored, sun-baked fantasia that's part Western spoof and part surrealist jag through the desert with Johnny Depp as our theatrically unhinged, reptilian tour guide, "Rango" is anything but your standard kiddie animated flick.

It's hard to believe this is the same team behind those "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, which by the first sequel had devolved into formulaic schlock without a shred of story structure. But director Gore Verbinski, Depp and screenwriter John Logan have joined forces for one of the daffiest and most original animated features in a long, long time.

Maybe it's because "Rango," the story of a domesticated lizard who stumbles into a spaghetti Western, didn't issue forth from one of the animation giants like Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks or Blue Sky. It's a partnership between Nickelodeon, Verbinski's production company and George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, a special effects outfit making its first foray into computer-generated cartoons.

All I can say is, based on everything from the dazzling details on the numerous critters' parched faces to the multihued splendor of the arid landscapes to the crisply-paced action scenes, the ILM gang has announced themselves with authority. The animation in "Rango" -- which doesn't fall back on any cheap 3-D tricks, by the way -- is as good as, or better, than anything Pixar and the gang are doing right now.

Depp voices the lonely lizard passing his days inside his terrarium, imagining himself up some friends for his theatrical productions, in a scene that recalls Jack Sparrow trapped in Davy Jones' Locker in "PotC: At World's End." The film is filled to the brim with references to other movies, including a drive-by homage to "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

After a mishap leaves him by the side of the road in the Mojave, our scaly friend with a penchant for changing identities as easily as he can shift colors winds up in the town of Dirt.

The townsfolk, comprising every manner of reptile, bird, arachnid and mammal native to the desert, are suffering through a horrid drought and an even worse funk. When our lizard friend accidentally sends a local marauder to boot hill, he's given the job of sheriff.

He dubs himself Rango, and quickly creates the persona of a Clint Eastwood-esque Man from Nowhere. Rango is delighted at his new status -- not to mention the attentions of Miss Beans (Isla Fisher), a local rancher who has a tendency to freeze up when flustered.

As he bedecks himself in increasingly flamboyant gunslinger garb and spins outrageous tales about killing the evil Jensen brothers with one bullet -- all seven of them -- we begin to wonder if the attention-craving Rango's noodle wasn't already cooked before he ever set a three-toed foot in the desert.

Of course, bigger challenges await. There's a local bully (Ray Winstone) in need of standing up to, a pack of tunneling varmint thieves on the outskirts of town led by a blind mole (Harry Dean Stanton), and a power-hungry Mayor (Ned Beatty) who appears to have been lifted directly out of "Chinatown," right down to the white 10-gallon hat and watery schemes of John Huston's iconic Noah Cross ... except now he's a turtle.

Even worse is the rumor of a dead-eye outlaw named Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) slithering back into town with the tumbleweeds.

It's a loopy, fun ride as we follow Rango on his (mis)adventures, including a posse hunt that culminates in an epic chase sequence complete with mounted bats and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" arranged for banjos. Even more unexpected is the hallucinogenic amusement of several dream-slash-vision-quest scenes so bursting with colors and freaky-deaky images, I half expected melting clocks to ooze onto the screen.

A wild mishmash of Sergio Leone and Salvador Dali with an all-critter cast, "Rango" is what happens when animators forget about borders and just ride off into whatever sunset their imaginations take them.

3.5 stars out of four