Review in a Hurry: Think Chinatown meets Three Amigos as enacted by roadkill and you're somewhere in the neighborhood of this wonderfully odd animated feature--a first for both director Gore Verbinski and Industrial Light &Magic. Breaking away from his stale Tim Burton collaborations, Johnny Depp is in fine form as a literal chameleon; the Pirates of the Caribbean director has once again brought out the best in him.
The Bigger Picture: An actor with an identity crisis, stranded in a strange place, takes on a pseudonym inspired by a tequila bottle and invents an elaborate fictional backstory so people will think of him as a great man. But when the truth is found out, he has to actually become the hero he pretended to be. We've seen some variation on this theme in movies before, but never from a lizard wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
The Artist Soon to Be Renamed Rango begins the movie in a glass terrarium, putting on plays for nobody in particular, with a supporting cast that consists of a Barbie torso, a clockwork fish and a dead insect. But life as he knows it is literally shattered when his home flies out the back of the car it's in, somewhere out in the desert.
Eventually stumbling upon the town of Dirt, populated entirely by desert creatures with varying degrees of grossness--let's just say cute plush-toy tie-ins aren't very likely--he tells a tall tough-guy tale to impress the locals. But when he actually manages to outwit a hawk, mostly through dumb luck, they embrace him and make him the sheriff. Problem is, there are more devious forces at play, from the local gang of water thieves to the sinister and murderous Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy).
Between movies like the Pirates films, The Ring, Mouse Hunt and The Weather Man, it's hard to see too many commonalities in Verbinski's films, but one theme that has always stood out is the notion of the main character who has no idea what he or she is supposed to do in a world gone mad. We're used to seeing Depp embody the madness, but here, perhaps freed by the fact that his character looks nothing like him, he's the adrift protagonist looking to belong, but unsure how.
The movie is astonishing as a technical feat alone, proving you don't need 3-D to make CG pop. ILM render the animals with a combination of super-realistic textures and cartoonishly exaggerated features. The Coen Brothers' regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, was consulted on the cinematography, resulting in more elaborately thought-out lighting and virtual camerawork than is the norm in cartoons.
But aside from all that, it's a fun romp with a great cast, from Ray Winstone as a reptilian thug to Harry Dean Stanton as a bandit mole. And Verbinski's weird sense of humor, while not for everyone, delivers some out-of-left-field moments that give Rango the unique identity the lead character--along with many moviegoers--has been looking for.
The 180--a Second Opinion: While the references to other, more grown-up movies (among them Apocalypse Now, Raising Arizona, Chinatown and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) are subtler than Shrek-tacular, it's a shame anyone felt them necessary at all.