Dirt, a ramshackle town in the Mojave Desert, is so dry it might better be called Dust, but it sure proves fertile ground for Rango, an animated western that's effortlessly the most exhilarating flight of computer-drawn fancy since Ratatouille.
Rango's not just a kiddie-flick (though it has enough silly slapstick to qualify as a pretty good one). It's a real movie lover's movie, conceived as a Blazing Saddles-like comic commentary on genre that's as back-lot savvy as it is light in the saddle.
Populated by dog-eared rabbits, desiccated gophers, skinny mice and all sorts of other critters, the town of Dirt is presided over by a garrulous turtle (voiced by Ned Beatty) and regularly terrorized by predators. Chief among the varmints is Bad Bill (Ray Winstone), a Gila monster with a reptilian gang backing him up, and Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) who's got what looks like a Gatling gun where his brethren have rattles. But even Jake slithers away when pursued by the hawk that soars regularly overhead and that early in the film swoops after a screaming, seriously out-of-his-element chameleon (Johnny Depp) in a loud Hawaiian shirt.
How'd the chameleon get here? Long story. Let's just say he hit a bump in the road while seeking a true identity that he will find, more or less accidentally in this ghost-town-in-the-making. He's a hero, albeit not a conventional one. A lizard with no name, he's a suburban tenderfoot and thespian-in-training who's been raised in a terrarium with only a plastic tree, a wind-up fish and a broken doll as companions.
Still, chameleons are nothing if not adaptable, and once he's learned to walk the Western walk, this chameleon will be calling himself Rango, cozying up to a lady lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher), pinning on a sheriff's badge and — armed with more bravado than common sense — taking on bad guys.
If ever there's been an actor who knows how to change his stripes, it's pirate/gangster/Mad Hatter/demon barber/dude-with-scissors-for-hands Depp. So casting him as an actual chameleon must've seemed a no-brainer. That it's worked out so well was hardly a given, although with Gore Verbinski in the director's chair, it always had a good shot.
Rango is Verbinski's first leap into computer animation (not a long leap from the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, admittedly) — and one he makes with the joy of someone who is well-versed in the limitations of live-action and can't wait to get around them.
Here, with help from the digital effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic (also making their first foray into animation), he's framing shots from inside a rolling soda bottle, or from angles that are as deliriously unlikely as they are spectacularly cinematic, possibly because the great cinematographer Roger Deakins consulted on visuals. Deakins did the same thing a few years back on Wall-E, but it's clear that computer graphics have made advances since then.
The light in Rango is breathtaking — dusty, shimmering — and it seems at times as if Deakins realized that the photo-realism it allows for computer-graphic imagery gave him a chance to do all the shots that were too expensive or difficult to manage when he was shooting the live-action Westerns True Grit and No Country for Old Men. (It's worth noting that Rango is proudly and deliberately 2-D, and far smarter about giving depth to its images than any of its animated 3-D predecessors.)
Verbinski, meanwhile, is having a field day with riffs designed strictly for film buffs, and with dialogue so loopy it often sounds improvised. (He ignored industry convention and gathered his actors together in a sound studio rather than recording them in isolation.) There's hardly a big-sky stereotype he doesn't trick out with new tricks — wait till you catch the man-with-no-name corker he's come up with — but he and co-screenwriters John Logan and James Ward Byrkit are cribbing their plot points not just from classic Westerns but from the likes of Chinatown, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Apocalypse Now.
Kids will be too caught up in the shoot'em-ups to realize how much cleverness is sailing right over their heads, but if you're past adolescence, prepare to corral movie references as they stampede by. The more films you've seen, the more fun you'll have.
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If ever there was an actor who knew how to change his stripes, it's Johnny Depp: pirate, gangster, mad hatter, demon barber, guy with scissors for hands. Depp is a regular chameleon. So casting him as an actual chameleon must have seemed a no-brainer. That's Depp's role in the new animated film "Rango."
Our critic Bob Mondello says it worked out better than anyone could have imagined.
BOB MONDELLO: Dirt, a ramshackle town in the Mojave Desert, so dry it might better be called Dust. It's populated by dog-eared gophers, skinny mice, all sorts of mangy critters and terrorized by predators, including a giant hawk that is currently chasing a very out-of-his-element chameleon in a Hawaiian shirt.
How did the chameleon get here? Long story, but suffice it to say, he hit a bump in the road while seeking a true identity, an identity the hawk is about to help him find accidentally. He's a hero.
(Soundbite of film, "Rango)
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Did you see that?
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) What do you think, (unintelligible)?
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) This hawk is dead.
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Circle of life.
MONDELLO: Now, celebrated as he becomes, heroism is not a good fit for our hero, who's played by a delectably dithering Johnny Depp. He may be a man with no name, well a lizard with no name, but he's also a suburban tenderfoot, raised in a terrarium.
Still, chameleons are nothing if not adaptable, and once he's learned to walk bow-legged, this chameleon will be calling himself Rango, pinning on a sheriff's badge and even cozying up to a lady lizard.
(Soundbite of film, "Rango")
Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor): (As Rango) So what's your name?
Ms. ISLA FISHER (Actor): (As Beans) Beans.
Mr. DEPP: (As Rango) That's a funny kind of name.
Ms. FISHER: (As Beans) What can I say? My daddy plum-loved baked beans.
Mr. DEPP: (As Rango) Well, you're lucky he didn't plum-love asparagus.
Ms. FISHER: (As Beans) What are you saying?
Mr. DEPP: (As Rango) I enjoy a hearty puttanesca myself, but I'm not sure that a child would appreciate the moniker.
MONDELLO: I'm not sure a child will understand most of that exchange. But who wants things dumbed-down in a flick that's spoofing classic Westerns while cribbing plot points from "Chinatown," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Apocalypse Now"? This is not, as you may be gathering, just a kid-flick.
In fact, with realistic varmints and a PG rating, "Rango" may actually be kind of dicey for really small kids. But it's a terrific movie-lovers' movie. The more films you've seen, the more film references you'll be able to corral as they stampede by.
(Soundbite of film, "Rango")
Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (As character) People have to believe in something.
Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): (As character) You want something to believe in? Believe in that there sign. For as long as it hangs there, we got hope.
MONDELLO: Much is being made of the fact that "Rango" is director Gore Verbinski's first leap into computer animation. Of course, he's coming from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, which aren't that far away. Still, he leaps in with the joy of someone who is well-versed in the limitations of live-action and can't wait to get around them.
Helping him are the effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic and, as a visual consultant, cinematographer Roger Deakins, who just made the live action Western "True Grit." In that one, his camera was reigned-in by reality. In this one, he can propose absolutely anything he can imagination and seems determined to top himself in every shot, say by shooting from inside a rolling bottle.
(Soundbite of film, "Rango")
(Soundbite of music)
MONDELLO: It's worth noting that "Rango" is, by its director's choice, being released only in 2-D and that it's a lot smarter about giving depth to its images than most of its 3-D competition. It's also a lot brighter than its competition. Without those 3-D glasses, the light in "Rango" - and remember, it's all computer code - is just amazing: dusty, shimmering, exquisite. And that crooked-necked lizard at the center of most shots: a lovely little bonus.
I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.