Johnny Depp isn’t the sort of star to blend in, so it’s saying something that his turn as the world’s most conspicuous chameleon in “Rango” is so full-bodied, you forget the actor and focus on the character. Depp is but one voice in the all-around impressive ensemble Gore Verbinski assembles for his astonishingly adult-skewing animated debut, a comedic riff on the classic Wild West formula that could, if viewed in the right light, just as easily serve as one long “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”-style hallucination. With kid appeal aplenty, the eccentric yet aud-friendly result should rustle big business worldwide.
This stunning virgin foray into feature-length animation from Verbinski and the vfx miracle workers at Industrial Light & Magic (his primary collaborator on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” pics) looks and feels nothing like the toons that have come before. “Rango” boasts not only the most photoreal visuals this side of “Wall-E” but a refreshingly unique narrative sensibility to boot, starting with its Charlie Kaufman-worthy opening monologue and Greek chorus — technically, a mariachi band of bright-eyed Mexican owls whose songs fit the score’s playful marriage of Hans Zimmer bombast and Los Lobos energy.
Depp plays a zonk-eyed pet lizard traveling cross-country through the Mojave Desert when a freak accident leaves him stranded in the blistering sun. Far removed from his natural habitat, the green-skinned, Hawaiian shirt-wearing reptile finds it virtually impossible to camouflage himself in his new all-brown environment, choosing instead to pass for something he’s not, a fearless gunfighter named Rango.
With no real-world experience but a near-inexhaustible supply of good luck, Rango looks exactly like what the naively optimistic denizens of Dirt need right now: a hero. Their old-timey desert outpost is beset by predators and ruled by a corrupt mayor (Ned Beatty, playing a less huggable villain than he did in “Toy Story 3”), who clearly has a hand in the mysterious drought making all their lives miserable. That much even younger auds should be able to follow, though John Logan’s hilarious script is loaded with two-dollar dialogue and wonderfully baroque expressions sure to confound even a fair number of adults.
Live-action helmers have had mixed success making the transition to animation of late, but Verbinski brings real vision to the endeavor, conceiving a world that starts small — contained within Rango’s terrarium, in fact — and gradually expands to accommodate nearly all of Monument Valley in a way auds can intuitively follow. Even more impressive than the world itself is the incredibly varied ensemble that populates it, a motley mix of reptiles and rodents in which no two are redundant, each memorably designed by Mark “Crash” McCreery and his team, then brought to life via a bull’s-eye match of critter and character actor. Though the entire cast is terrific, standouts include Bill Nighy as venomous Rattlesnake Jake, Ray Winstone’s menacing gila-monster henchman Bad Bill and Isla Fisher as Rango’s long-lashed love interest, Beans.
Where “Rango” ultimately falters is in the uncomfortable juxtaposition of kid-friendly entertainment — represented by unnecessarily bombastic fight scenes that feel out of place within Logan’s more intellectually spirited screenplay — and the savvier, self-reflexive humor clearly aimed at adults. The only major pop-culture references here are a cameo by a Hunter S. Thompson lookalike and an amusing run-in with a mystic Man With No Name-esque figure (voiced by Timothy Olyphant). Though most of the laugh-out-loud moments result from either witty wordplay or inspired physical comedy, even the fart jokes feel fresh by contrast with the delivery we’ve come to expect from toondom’s more established players.
It’s hard to call originality “Rango’s” greatest asset when the story itself trades so heavily on established Western movie tropes, but the project clearly comes from a completely different place than any other American-made animated feature. That radical departure is reinforced by the look of the film, which is now the third toon to rely on Roger Deakins as a virtual cinematography consultant.
Considering ILM’s incredible background in live-action vfx, it’s no surprise the company brings a staggering level of realism to the lighting and textures throughout. The shocker is just how good their character animation work is: From the way Rango walks to the subtlest eye twitch, this quirky chameleon’s screen presence is more plausible than even some of Depp’s most beloved flesh-and-blood creations, raising the bar for other studios going forward.
While on the subject of eyes, Rango’s peepers violate the prevailing wisdom that bigger is better, with scaly lids covering all but a tiny pinhole at their center, inviting us to consider the performance of the character’s entire face rather than just his shiny irises. It should also be said that even projected in 2D, “Rango” makes better use of dimension than many stereoscopic toons.