Rango, director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp's new animated, slithery, sand-and-sun opera, has a lot of things going for it. To be begin with, Depp proves he needs neither Captain Jack's wild extremities nor his buggy, shadowy peepers to play a riotously amusing and curiously screwy underdog hero. The eponymous Rango, voiced by Depp, is an hawaiian shirted chameleon who crashes (quite literally) out of his glass box existence while speeding down a desert highway with his owners. Lost and stranded in a Nevada wasteland, Rango wanders from the "real world" and stumbles very unequivocally into a Spaghetti Western populated by other scaly creatures, vermin and birds. Adorned in the traditional garb of a Leone flick, the citizens of Dirt (the town our hero happens upon) are in a sad state since their water supply was cut. Rango, their reptilian Shane, steps in with tall tales of one-bullet-killing-sprees and rattlesnake half-brothers and quickly gains respectful notoriety -- before long he's Sheriff Rango and it's high noon.
Depp is impressive as Rango for willingly immersing himself. The part seems all but written for him, and he reciprocates with whole-hearted enthusiasm. Early on when a cartoon Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo sped passed the green gunslinger in their red convertible I knew immediately which Depp alter-ego Rango reminded me of most. And it's not just the shirt, but the rambling speech and pseudo-sophistication -- the renegade esprit following something unbeknownst even to the men themselves. Duke was chugging forward at light speed trying to go backwards (to the 60's), and Rango, well, he's not trying to recapture his destiny, but simply figure it out.
As it happens, that destiny was to be dropped tail first into an animated landscape so visually arresting it just about dusts the theater seats. Director Verbinski brings an elegant desert poetry to the film: sunflowers cup themselves in the heat, Rango is carried on a rollypolly mattress across the sun-drenched sand. The action scenes are equally impressive as our hero outruns a swarm of bats in a frenzied canyon chase or takes on a scene-stealing serpent named Rattlesnake Jake (with a Lee Von Cleef stash) who's got a gatling-gun rattle.
Though it's nice to see such detail and imagination put in service of adulate homage (name your Western plus a Noah Cross turtle proclaiming, "Whoever has the water controls everything!", and even a dive bombing hawk who may as well have been crop dusting Cary Grant) it's nicer to see them put in service of a great story. Rango gasps for air. Push aside all the gorgeously contrasty saloons and sun-baked dunes and all you've got is a mediocre Western. 2008's Kung Fu Panda was superior for prioritizing itself as a first-class Kung Fu film first and a CGI extravaganza second. Rango can only aspire to the lofty melange of genre and tech that Panda reached rather effortlessly. Despite its qualities and its showcasing, Rango remains slightly under conceived. The thin story felt like an afterthought. Still, I was left amusingly bemused by the ever-zany Johnny Depp whose voice talents brought Rango and his picaresque to life just as he did with another well-known, equally animated lune, Captain Jack Sparrow.