Johnny Depp animated flick ‘Rango’ is weirdly amusing

By Robert W. Butler
McClatchy Newspapers

“Rango” is a big, unruly hoot.

The first animated effort from director Gore Verbinski is an homage/sendup of cowboy cliches – and about a half dozen other movie genres to boot.

The film features some of the most astounding computer animation ever.

Moreover, thanks to a slew of terrific voice actors who are obviously having a great time, ‘Rango’ is wildly, weirdly amusing.

Like Verbinski’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, “Rango” not only has a goofy sensibility but also a dubious narrative style – it spends a lot of time running around without ever really going anywhere.

Our hero, voiced by Johnny Depp, is a pet chameleon jettisoned from his comfy terrarium into the Nevada desert.

Evading predators, this reptilian city slicker wanders into a dusty town called Dirt that’s populated with eccentric critters.

Accidentally dispatching a hawk that has been picking off the residents, Depp’s character is hailed as a hero.

This is, of course, in the long Hollywood tradition of comedies about ineffectual cowards mistaken for dangerous hombres.

The man of the hour quickly realizes an opportunity to indulge his acting ambitions (he’s a chameleon, after all) and declares himself a gunfighter named Rango. Next thing you know, he’s the new sheriff.

But the vault of the local bank – which holds water and not money – is running dry. The town is doomed, unless Sheriff Rango can save the day.

“Rango” delivers a motherlode of cinematic spoofs.

An action scene in which the townsfolk are strafed by bat-riding rodent rednecks is plucked directly from the Death Star sequence of the original “Star Wars.”

The town of Dirt is patterned after the frontier burg in Sam Raimi’s “The Quick and the Dead,” right down to the big clock tower. Rango has a showdown with an evil rattlesnake who clearly has studied Jack Palance’s performance in “Shane.”

There’s a group of mariachi-singing owls who serve as a Greek chorus, a soundtrack of ersatz Morricone and some clever wordplay that will go right over the heads of small fry.

“The night,” intones our narrator, “was moist with apprehension.”

And at a crucial moment, our scaly hero gets inspiration from a ghost called the Spirit of the West, a dead ringer for the Man With No Name (and voiced by Timothy Olyphant in his best Clint Eastwood imitation).

“Rango” was polished in rehearsals in which the voice actors – among them Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton – enacted their characters’ scenes and contributed ad libs and funny physical business.

Much of what was done on stage was incorporated into the finished film.

The result is a loose, improvised feel rare among the many animated movies, most of which are voiced by actors standing alone in recording studios and reading from a script.

“Rango” is too long and carries little emotional heft, but its eruptions of gonzo humor help make up for any downside.