“Rango” proves that Pixar has no monopoly on super-terrific animation. It’s an exuberant, audacious love letter to spaghetti Westerns masquerading as a kiddie cartoon. And it delivers deliciously on both levels.
Johnny Depp provides the voice of a hapless, neurotic pet lizard who finds himself stranded in the desert among tough varmints with no particular investment in keeping him alive.
Being a chameleon, he has a gift for blending in. Like a natural actor, he quickly grasps what his new audience wants — a lawman to save Dirt, their water-starved town — and makes believe that he’s just the two-fisted galoot for the job. He convinces himself, too, taking on all manner of sidewinders with a blend of bumbling bluster and charmingly deluded selfconfidence. His mission to give the townsfolk something to believe in becomes a crack-brained existential quest.
The film reunites Depp with director Gore Verbinski, whose cartoon-like “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies rocket along like comic strips starring live actors. The team’s move into actual animation liberates them to push the boundaries of slapstick sight gags to the very edge of surrealism. This movie is Grade-A silliness, never missing a chance to slip in an absurd joke that might zoom past the uninitiated.
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Still, the yarn maintains a strong, involving story line, borrowing liberally from the Clint Eastwood canon. Strangely, “Rango” has a better developed plot than most Westerns. Screenwriter John Logan (“Gladiator,” “The Aviator,” “Sweeney Todd”) knows a few things about construction.
The technical production sparkles. The first feature-length animation from Industrial Light and Magic effects studio, “Rango” is a holiday for the eye. Its action is set against grandiose, panoramic Southwest landscapes, whose epic vistas are rendered in rich color and vivid detail. Every mote of dust in a shaft of light, each facet in a barroom shot glass, the individual wrinkles in Rango’s reptilian skin — there’s not a pixel on the screen that hasn’t been art-directed to within an inch of its life.
The action sequences are dizzying, death-defying marvels. The animated cast — a menagerie of gila monsters, horned toads, rattlers, rats and other frontier wildlife — is sharply individualized and expressive.
The soundtrack is as arresting as the film’s look. Hans Zimmer’s score is a witty homage to Ennio Morricone’s sagebrush operatics, and Los Lobos pops up to perform a series of mariachi-inspired tunes predicting imminent death for our badly outnumbered hero.
The vocal ensemble is inspired: Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Alfred Molina, Ray Winstone, Stephen Root, Isla Fisher as Depp’s no-nonsense love interest, and Ned Beatty, following up his villainous teddy bear in “Toy Story 3” with an even nastier power monger.