04 March 2011


Spoons (voice of Alex Manugian), left, and Rango (voice of Johnny Depp) are shown in a scene from the animated feature "Rango."
"Rango" boasts sparkling computer animation rivaling the output of Pixar; its characters include talking lizards, toads, an armadillo, a turtle and various other rodents, bugs and desert animals; and international movie star Johnny Depp headlines its voice cast.

Now here's the thing Paramount Pictures doesn't want you to know: It's not a kids' movie.

Though the littlest ones might be scared by the intensity of the action (which includes a handful of character deaths), there probably is enough excitement and comedy to keep most children entertained. But "Rango" is a full-blown Western, one of the best of the past 20 years, and younger viewers won't recognize its references to other movies (which are wide-ranging enough to include the expected Westerns and other classics, such as "Apocalypse Now," "Chinatown" and "Star Wars") and its near-giddy celebration of genre conventions. They won't know what to make of its hero's existential pondering—"Who am I?" he asks himself several times.

The hero in question is a small lizard (Depp) who spends his days acting out original dramatic productions in his terrarium, with a plastic wind-up fish and the discarded torso of a doll as his co-stars. He must confront the artificial nature of his existence when he unexpectedly finds himself stranded in the Mojave Desert. After guidance from a sagely armadillo (Alfred Molina), he finds the desolate town of Dirt, inhabited by the aforementioned creatures and caught in the grip of a crippling drought.

Mistaken for a genuine hero and all too willing to play the part, the lizard gives his best performance, christening himself "Rango" and becoming the new town sheriff. A crisis arrives shortly thereafter when bandits pilfer Dirt's meager supply of water.

A wonderful cast of character actors has been assembled—Ned Beatty, Stephen Root, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, Timothy Olyphant. There are also Isla Fisher as Rango's love interest, a feisty lizard named Beans, and Abigail Breslin as a youngin who idolizes her town's new hero.

The principal creative forces behind the movie come from live-action features—director Gore Verbinski ("Pirates of the Caribbean"), screenwriter John Logan ("The Aviator," "Gladiator")—which perhaps explains a tone that is so unconventional for major-studio animation.

The great cinematographer Roger Deakins, a nine-time Oscar nominee, most recently for the Coen brothers' "True Grit," served as a visual consultant and surely had an impact on the dynamic visuals. In fact, the cinematography here is no less an achievement than that of "True Grit" or any other celebrated film of the past few years.

"Rango" is a lot of things but not what has been advertised. It is, however, the best non-Pixar animated movie in recent memory and a shining ray of light in the early months of 2011.

Greg's Grade: A

(Rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking. 107 minutes.)

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