Generally speaking, animated movies these days are sure-fire entertainment for uncritical tots and iffier propositions for seen-it-all adults. But the CGI-animated Rango flips that script with its bizarro sensibility: it's the grown-ups who may not believe their eyes (and ears), and the kids who may wonder what all the fuss is about.
I suspect the young'uns will still take a shine to the hero of Rango: a chameleon that's part Kermit the Frog, part street-corner kook (and all Johnny Depp, who supplies the often hilarious voice). Aptly introduced as "the strange and bewildering tale of a hero who has yet to enter his own story," Rango begins with the wild-eyed chameleon a legend only in his own mind, a dreamer whose play-acting is contained within the four glass walls of a terrarium.
A spill onto a desert highway forces the lizard out of his comfort zone, where he gets oddly existential advice from a flattened armadillo (Alfred Molina): "Enlightenment: we're nothing without it." A couple of Hunter S. Thompson allusions later, the Hawaiian-shirt-clad hero wanders into the desert and arrives at the severely depressed town of Dirt. Given the prime opportunity to reinvent himself, the chameleon bluffs a heroic persona, calling himself "Rango" (a quick-thinking contraction of "Durango").
Like the Brave Little Tailor of Grimm Brothers lore, Rango builds his reputation on the notion of killing seven with one blow or, in this Western variation, seven men with one bullet. Since Dirt is in the midst of a severe water shortage (what's left will be gone in just days), a hero fills a vital need. "People have to believe in something," says the turtle Mayor (Ned Beatty), who appoints Rango as the new sheriff. The comedy comes from the chameleon's ironically dubious adaptability and unearned confidence. Strutting through town, he advises youngsters, "Stay in school, eat your veggies, burn everything but Shakespeare."
There's a touch of mystery to the proceedings—as Rango and the townspeople slowly get to the bottom of the water plot, which plays out as a parody of Chinatown—and a touch of head trip to a reverie bringing Rango face to face with "The Spirit of the West" (Timothy Olyphant), who looks and sounds like Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name. The cinematic allusions comes courtesy of screen talent imported from live-action films: director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean), screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator) and "cinematography consultant" Roger Deakins (True Grit).
The first animated feature to come out of Industrial Light & Magic, Rango is a sight to behold (whether in shadowy interiors or dusty, sun-baked exteriors), with pleasingly idiosyncratic supporting characters voiced by Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ray Winstone. But what most separates Rango from the kiddie pack is its willingness to come out of left field with, say, a banjo-and-jug version of "Ride of the Valkyries," or sexual malapropisms that will fly over kids' heads, or a line like "We're experiencing a paradigm shift!" And why not?
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]