Movies: Rango ****
(PG, general release)
As Pirates of the Caribbean is a cartoon in all but name, I suppose it's not a huge reach for Gore Verbinski to branch out into animation. What's surprising, though, is how witty and original and downright weird Rango is. Animated by Industrial Light and Magic and starring Verbinski's regular collaborator Johnny Depp, the film follows the adventures of a mild-mannered chameleon with an over-active imagination.
Rango (as he later decides to call himself) is a pet lizard who lives in a terrarium and spends his time imagining he's the star of various films. Everything changes, though, when he falls off the back of a van in which his owner is transporting him and ends up stranded in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Alone in the wild, Rango (voiced by Depp) is hunted by hawks and almost dies of thirst before stumbling on a dusty town called Dirt, which is populated by wild west versions of toads, birds, rodents and other small animals.
When he wanders into the saloon he poses as a cocksure gunslinger, and the locals believe him. In fact, they're so desperate they'll believe anything, for their town has been afflicted for some months by a terrible drought, and if they don't get some water soon the entire community will collapse. Dirt is governed by a smooth-talking mayor called Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton), who takes a shine to Rango and makes him sheriff. But when Rango starts to investigate the drought, he begins to smell a rat.
Rango starts so slowly and dreamily that you wonder where it's going to go. But once the chameleon hits town the film hits its stride and turns into an extremely funny and surprisingly cerebral comedy. John Logan's screenplay bristles with intelligence and affectionately parodies everything from Gunfight at the OK Corral to Chinatown. Our slimy hero pauses now and then to examine the nature of storytelling, and there are even shades of Homer's Odyssey for God's sake.
Apparently, the voice cast were given western sets and costumes to get them in the mood, and recorded their scenes together as though they were actual movie takes. Whatever they did, it works, and during the wonderful posse scenes in particular, the ensemble cast (which includes Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy and Ray Winstone) sparkles. No one more so than Depp, who imbues the film's goggle-eyed but irrepressible hero with real energy and emotion.
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