A marvelous mash-up of Old West and newfangled, "Rango" rewrites the animation playbook with its eye-popping critters and varmints, and its hero's tale (tail?) of a chameleon desperate for a SAG card and a town desperate for a sheriff. What fun.
In a world choked with animated films — the good, the bad and the ugly — it's hard to be either original or great. Yet director Gore Verbinski has done both — and without 3-D — breaking the rules and new ground in the town of Dirt. In this time-bending, mind-bending, just-go-with-it fable, the story shifts from overcrowded freeways, Hawaiian shirts and modern problems to covered wagons, chaps and long-running issues of water rights, land grabs and greed. And in a genuinely funny way, it all makes sense.
There were early signs of a mind that likes to operate off the grid in "Mousehunt," the first feature Verbinski directed. As a film it failed, but its string factory, decaying manse and devious mouse were strangely captivating anyway. Things finally jelled in the clever conceits he ginned up while directing the first three installments of "Pirates of the Caribbean," and he couldn't have done better than to get Jack Sparrow to go fully animated. With Johnny Depp as the voice of Rango, get ready to be charmed from the first moments in the terrarium where as Lars, he's passing time reading lines with a broken Barbie and dreaming of the big time.
The crack screenplay is by John Logan ("Gladiator," "The Last Samurai"), working with a "Pirates" creative combine that included Verbinski, conceptual artist James Ward Byrkit and visual effects wizard Mark "Crash" McCreery. They've given Lars a journey of self-discovery that begins with a car wreck on a highway that cuts through the Mohave. It lands the pampered pet in a desert nightmare but frees him to answer when destiny calls him to a town named Dirt, that looks a lot like something out of "High Plains Drifter," complete with the saloon.
Before you know it, Lars has embraced the role of a lifetime. He steals the Rango moniker from a beer bottle, pins on that badge and sets about high-nooning bad guys, making eyes at a brown-eyed lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher) and trying to figure out where the water's gone. For this is a place where heroes — and movie allusions — are made with wild abandon, much like "The Wild Bunch."
Though Depp and Fisher dominate, the film's richness is because of its sprawling ensemble cast of characters. Among the standouts are Abigail Breslin as Priscilla, a precocious young mouse; Alfred Molina as a spirit warrior armadillo named Roadkill (both a name and a sight gag); Bill Nighy's terrific bad guy Rattlesnake Jake; Ned Beatty as the stone-fisted tortoise for a Mayor (a mix-tape of John Huston in "Chinatown" and a wheelchair-bound Lionel Barrymore in "It's a Wonderful Life"). The look is in that old storybook style of fanciful beasts rendered in exceptional detail, even if they are covered in warts or quills.
The vibrancy of the acting no doubt finds its source in Verbinski's decision to put the "voices" in costumes and on sets to act out all the scenes together rather than working in the isolation of sound booths. The result creates a spark and a connection among characters that can often go missing in animation and a level of improvisation that seemed impossible for the genre.
Verbinski went to Industrial Light & Magic for the animation, with "Rango" the visual effects house's first and hopefully far from its last full-length animated feature. The company certainly has a history in character creation from its inception, when George Lucas set it up for "Star Wars." Since then, it's left a deep imprint on many films, including "Terminator," "Transformers" and "Avatar." But there is a freshness you can feel in "Rango" that comes from having new hands on deck.
Though "Rango's" mostly dusty palette befits a parched town with not a drop of water (cue music), the massive sweep of the sky and the desert floor allows a critter to fill the screen or shrink depending on the context. The characters themselves are an eclectic bunch, with whimsical touches everywhere, from the inbred rodent gang led by patriarch Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton) to the mariachi band of owls that shows up to serenade us throughout.
For adults, there is artistry and allusions aplenty even in Hans Zimmer's score (surely someone will come up with a trivia game to cover the countless film references woven into nearly every scene). There is giggle-inducing slapstick, high-stakes showdowns and even a moral to this story for the kids. All of which combine to create an Old West that is downright good old-fashioned entertaining.
But Verbinski's greatest triumph is that he allowed the animation to free rather that confine him. There is indeed a new sheriff in town, with "Rango" destined to become a classic. It will probably make a fistful of dollars too.