In the animated western “Rango,” Johnny Depp has one of his best roles as a chameleon cut loose in the Mojave Desert who turns into the gunslinging savior of a parched town. True, he’s only the voice of Rango, but this is Depp, after all, who can do more with his voice than most actors can do with their entire body.
The nonstop inventiveness of “Rango," the first animated feature directed by “Pirates of the Caribbean” maven Gore Verbinski, is almost never exhausting. That’s because it hews to a strong story line. By the way, why is it that animated features these days – think “Toy Story 3” et al. – are almost always better plotted than dramatic features? Is it because the arduousness of working in animation helps pare down excess?
But I digress. The best of “Rango” is a lot like the best of the first “Pirates” movie – crazily funny and rambunctious. It draws on an entire library of westerns, most obviously “High Noon” and the Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone spaghetti epics, but it also draws on “Chinatown” and many other movies featuring reptilian bad guys. These borrowings are all done with high wit. (The screenwriter is John Logan.)
Depp’s is not the only standout voice work: Ned Beatty’s corrupt mayor, Bill Nighy’s Rattlesnake Jake, Timothy Olyphant’s Clint Eastwood parody, and Isla Fisher’s Beans, Rango’s lizardly love interest, are among the other standouts. The visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic, designed by Mark “Crash” McCreery and his team, are state of the art, only occasionally veering into (literal) overkill.
The animation is probably too scarily intense for children younger than around 8 years old. I noticed that the 5-year-old seated in my row laughed out loud at most of “Rango” but sunk into himself when the rattlesnake coiled into view. I was pretty scared, too. Grade: A- (Rated PG for rude humor, language, action, and smoking.)