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'Rango' a quick draw

The new cartoon is good enough to bug your eyes out.


'RANGO': Johnny Depp voices the titular chameleon.
  • 'RANGO': Johnny Depp voices the titular chameleon.

George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic has created live and digital effects for seemingly every movie to so much as detonate a firecracker since the late '70s. IMDB.com lists some 300 special effects credits for the company, with half of those in the past decade; the firm has 15 Oscars to its credit, for the likes of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "Jurassic Park" and "Titanic." Surprisingly, given that Pixar began as an ILM division, "Rango" is its first animated film. Yet, undoubtedly it rivals any previous visual achievement in ILM's history. In its realism, cinematography, lighting and sheer innovation, "Rango" is outstanding. It's also brilliantly scripted for both kids and adults, smashingly acted and may be the funniest Western since "Blazing Saddles."

Part vision quest, part environmental parable, "Rango" follows a chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp as he's forced to wander into the desert after his ill-secured terrarium bounces out of a vehicle during a move through the Mojave. This isn't the first time director Gore Verbinski has transformed Depp into a cartoon, if you count the star's turn as the flouncy Jack Sparrow in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise. But whereas loony-toony bravado burbled out of Sparrow's every sashay, Rango, a dweeby glee-club sort, struggles against a tide of evidence that he is in fact not leading-lizard material.

Directions from a mystic armadillo (Alfred Molina) lead Rango to intersect with a rancher's daughter as plain as her name, Beans (a hard-drawling Isla Fisher). She tolerates the chatty chameleon long enough to drop him at the outskirts of Dirt, a crumbling frontier village populated by some of the roughest and toughest-talking animals ever inked. Rango, realizing his peril as an outsider, spins tall tales — with him as the hero — for the townspeople.

But as George Costanza would tell you, pretending to be a marine biologist is all well and good until a whale washes up with a golf ball in its blowhole. Once trouble threatens, first in the form of some toughs who shake down water-poor landowners, Rango decides his only recourse is to walk the walk. He swallows a lit cigar and chases it with a shot of cactus liquor. He agrees to a quick-draw shootout. He lives by the old Cary Grant formula for becoming Cary Grant: "I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me." His legend grows accordingly after he survives a couple of harrowing run-ins with a fearsome hawk (whose steel-tipped beak is ornately etched in six-shooter style, one of the film's myriad visual flourishes). When the mayor, a shady old turtle (voiced by Ned Beatty) with a crooked sneer, pins a sheriff's star on Rango's chest, it's akin to a kiss of death. Rango, swept up in the giddy momentum of the lies, falls ever forward, and as a quartet of mariachi owls likes to remind us, he's bound to die.

Dirt's fate depends on learning who's diverting its scarce water, and in this, "Rango" slyly tackles a modern resource conflict through the medium of the spaghetti Western. Rango meanwhile seeks to find his own identity through his tangled grandstanding, embarking at times on surrealistic sojourns that recall Homer's "insanity pepper" desert meditations from one the most memorable of "Simpsons" episodes. That emotional arc doesn't carry the heft of, say, "Toy Story 3," and two brief (inside-jokey) encounters with humans show how far digital animation still has to go in rendering pitch-perfect people. No matter; the animals, plants, textures (glass, water, dust, fire, wood, etc.) and landscapes of "Rango" are nothing shy of wondrous. It's a rare feat for a film this silly to also inspire such awe. Your eyes, like those of the titular chameleon, will absolutely bug.

Sam Eifling

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