Film Review: Rango

An animated homage to western movies—from classic to revisionist, old-fashioned to postmodern—'Rango' plumbs existential depths and hits movie-lover highs.

The mythical Spirit of the Old West figures big in Rango, as does the hysterical spirit of Don Knotts—"hysterical" in both senses of the term. As the newly self-dubbed "Rango," our otherwise nameless chameleon hero uses bravado, exaggeration and improv to survive in a miniature desert frontier town populated by horned toads and hornswogglers, rattlesnakes and rustlers, and some figurative skunks and polecats. There, the accidentally abandoned pet, who'd kept his sanity in a lonely home terrarium by casting himself as the hero in make-believe movies, masks his fear and keeps up appearances like the nervous Nelly Knotts played to perfection in films like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Reluctant Astronaut and especially The Shakiest Gun in the West, which this more than a little resembles—along with healthy doses of Carlos Castaneda, Sergio Leone, Chuck Jones and Chinatown that together make this the kid-movie equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino picture. There's no gory violence or swearing, of course, but there sure is a film buff's parade of great movie moments. And now…we ride!

Rango—unrecognizably but aptly voiced by Johnny Depp, himself a chameleon—is an every-lizard who, after a cross-country car mishap, finds himself stranded in the contemporary Southwest. There, with the help of a rancher's-daughter iguana named Beans (Isla Fisher), he finds himself in Dirt, a town that time forgot. After convincing the Old West-style denizens that he's a rootin'-tootin' gunslinger, Rango is made a figurehead sheriff by the avuncular old Tortoise John (Ned Beatty, channeling John Huston right down to his monologue on water and the future). But things in Dirt are dirty, and soon Rango's gotta do what a reptile's gotta do. Which would be easier if he had any idea what he was doing.

Director Gore Verbinski, working in animation for the first time—though his Mouse Hunt and Pirates of the Caribbean films are more or less live-action cartoons—grasps both the painterly possibilities of expressionistic vistas and the tick-tock timing of slapstick: A scene between Rango, burping fire after drinking firewater, and Bad Bill (Ray Winstone), an implacable, antagonistic gila monster getting said fire in the face, bears the unmistakable stamp of Warner Bros. great Chuck Jones, whom the Industrial Light & Magic animators clearly bow to, as well they should. Given that, it's not surprising to see road runners used as horses here, though the filmmakers are wise enough not to hammer on that point with a "beep! beep!" There's a fine line between homage and awful, after all—one sublimely seen with what eventually turns out to be a rather Wile E. Coyote hawk.

Rango treads that line straight and true. In addition to its identity comedy comes an identity crisis. In addition to drawing-room murder mystery (How does someone drown in a desert? Hmm…), come remarkable set-pieces, including one long, kinetic sequence straight out of The Road Warrior. Principal screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, the planned 2012 James Bond film) balances all this and more without it becoming a tiresome mishmash or derivative hokum—indeed, the film reaches moments of grace that a couple of minor plot holes don't sully.

A rare Nickelodeon animated feature not based on an existing franchise (“Rugrats,” “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Hey Arnold!”), Rango hopefully will not spin off some mediocre TV series. A finely faceted jewel in and of itself, it's a gem in which child and adult alike can see reflected an existential abyss or a Saturday matinee. And isn't that what all the best westerns do?