Are you smart, a bit weird and in love with movies? Then Rango is the animated film for you. Hell, it wants to be you. This often delightful western re-teams director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp; for a treasure trove of anthropomorphized animal characters and animated eye candy that (gasp!) eschews the 3D fad for gold old-fashioned 2D. Rango‘s love of movies — and reliance on one classic in particular — may go a little overboard in the end, but I can hardly fault Gore Verbinski for making something that dares to be odd, and plays to the audience in his own head rather than a studio focus group. You won’t see an animated Hunter S. Thompson in a DreamWorks film.

Gore Verbinski has always been an unlikely go-to guy for studios. His commercial past (Budweiser frogs) suggested a facility with broad mainstream entertainment. His eventual features looked mainstream but were skewed a bit left of center: Mouse Hunt, The Mexican and even Pirates of the Caribbean. In Pirates he let Johnny Depp sashay through the adventure wearing eyeliner and vaguely flexible sexuality; not exactly typical Disney fare. The director can turn out a big film that isn’t something a fan of 8 1/2 would ever call ‘personal,’ but retains enough quirks that it can’t be mistaken for extruded plastic product.

And so enter Rango, a CGI animated film that looks like a wanna-be quirky DreamWorks movie but feels like the sort of dusty secret that used to live in the bottom corner of VHS-era rental shops.

Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) is a lonely little being, a pet chameleon who immerses himself in empty fantasy before accidentally being dumped on his ass along a lonely stretch of Mojave highway. An unflappable armadillo sends him on a quest with emotional, spiritual and social undertones, but in the short term Rango only wants what so many other Western loners have longed for: a drink of water.

Instead, he finds Dirt: a minor wisp of a township more dusty than its namesake. Overseen by a wrinkly tortoise who bears an uncanny resemblance to John Huston in Chinatown, Dirt is on the verge of blowing away like a wayward tumbleweed. Beans (Isla Fisher) explains that once-regular water deliveries have fallen off, leaving the town in dire straits. Seizing the opportunity to reinvent himself, Rango lies his way into being Dirt’s latest sheriff, and is soon embroiled in an honest to god bildungsroman.

Johnny Depp’s performance as Rango is smirking but lively — the liveliest he’s been in some time, in fact. Set aside the degree to which that fact is truly depressing and enjoy the energy he brings to the picture. He’s surrounded by a voice cast of reliable talents: Harry Dean Stanton, Alfred Molina, Stephen Root, Ray Winstone, Abigail Breslin and many more.

But it’s the look that sells the movie, and what makes it worth a look on the big screen despite a couple of qualms that I’ll get to in a moment. The art direction is stupendous, serving up weather-beaten little critters that are exploding with the tiniest details, like the peeling layers on an old bird’s beak and the hedgehog spines that jab through a canvas duster. When it comes to quick gags the script is particularly nimble and ILM animates every joke with the same keen feel for timing and movement that brings the action setpieces to life.

When it comes to crafting a story to match the works of Pixar, the script is a bit less adept. Rango is half original tale and half movie trivia test, and the balance eventually tilts too heavily towards the latter. Close observers will see nods to the films of Hawks, Ford and Leone. Obvious audio cues are specifically meant for fans of Once Upon a Time in the West: a particular strain of harmonica on the soundtrack and the specific sound of a windmill early in the story. A frenetic chase through a desert canyon will remind you of either Star Wars or Porco Rosso (or both). You won’t even need all your senses to notice the nods to Chinatown. And that’s where things go a bit off-track.

The winking level of movie self-awareness threatens to go well over the top when the plot starts to remake Chinatown rather than gently elbowing it in the ribs, and when a particular Western icon appears in a dreamlike haze. If this was just a movie for kids I the reliance upon the plot of Chinatown would be easier to understand: if a ten-year old falls in love with Rango today and then is pulled towards Chinatown six years down the line because he notices the kinship, I wouldn’t complain. But Rango is clearly meant for a more film-literate audience, and for those viewers the plot could well deflate when they realize that Chinatown is the script’s crutch.

But what the hell; in an animated film like this I’ll take Roman Polanski and Hunter S. Thompson references over a nod to Paris Hilton any day. (There’s even a moment that may be the most oblique nod to a Tom Waits song ever put on film. At the appropriate moment, one might think of ‘A Sweet Little Bullet From a Pretty Blue Gun.’ Or maybe not, but I did.) Rango is wonderful to look at and often clever enough to guide your mind away from the shortcomings. If the CG animated landscape sometimes resembles a desert, Rango is a refreshing drink of water.

/Film Score: 7.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Russ Fischer lives in Los Angeles. For film reviews, the 1-10 scale breakdown goes like this: anything over a 5 is positive. (twitter.com/russfischer) or (russ.slashfilm at gmail.com)

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