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film_rangosFunny script, Depp's lizard hero, highlight Western spoof 'Rango'

Johnny Depp has always been an experimental character actor trapped in the body of a guy who looks like Johnny Depp. But he finds a way to do an end run around the burden of his own good looks—and unleash his inner clown—in Rango, an abundantly silly and entertaining animated family comedy in which Depp brings voice and life to the film's unorthodox hero, a bulbous-eyed green lizard with big dreams.

Directed by Gore Verbinski (who has shepherded Depp through all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies), from a very funny script by John Logan, Rango both spoofs and celebrates the traditional Western set-up about a lone stranger in a hard-luck pioneer town. (Complete with a hilarious owl mariachi quartet singing a ballad of the story as it unfolds.) Big kudos are due to Industrial Light and Magic for its remarkable CGI animation; sure, the anthropomorphic cast of reptiles, rodents, and birds talk, walk upright and wear clothes, but each creature is rendered in impressively lifelike detail, right down to the tiniest scale and whisker. But the film is also a freewheeling pastiche of movie references (all genres, all eras) that will keep trivia fans on their toes, while amusing the young 'uns with its slapstick verve.

The protagonist is literally the lizard with no name as the film begins, a household pet in a red Hawaiian shirt who longs to be a swashbuckling hero. We first meet him staging a melodrama in his comfy terrarium, employing a supporting cast of props (a wind-up fish, a dead bug, a minute cocktail pick shaped like a sword, a one-armed Barbie torso) that are also his only companions. But an automotive mishap sends the terrarium crashing out onto the highway, and the lizard suddenly finds himself alone in the Mojave Desert.

Searching for water, and shelter, dodging a predatory hawk (with a silver-encased beak, a la Lee Marvin's metal nose in Cat Ballou), he finally makes his way to the small desert hamlet of Dirt, whose denizens are in the grip of both drought and despair. In the local saloon (run by a frog who resembles Jabba the Hut), the lowly lizard improvs a persona for himself as a tough hombre called Rango. After some high-octane yarn-spinning and unexpected events, the town makes Rango its sheriff.

From this premise, the movie cheerfully rackets off in all directions. There's a water scandal worthy of Chinatown, involving the leathery old tortoise mayor (voice by Ned Beatty, channeling John Huston). Love interest is provided by a feisty pioneer lizard gal called Beans (Isla Fisher), trying to hold on to her daddy's ranch, while a skeptical little mouse (Abigail Breslin) becomes Rango's biggest hero-worshipper. The great Harry Dean Stanton voices the leader of an outlaw gang of tunneling mole bank robbers (pursued by a posse of small varmints mounted on roadrunners). And, after "sinking deeper into the guacamole of his own deception" (as the owls say), Rango must finally find his inner hero, atone for his lies, and save the town, by facing off against a villainous rattlesnake (Bill Nighy) with the glinty eyes and pencil moustache of a Lee Van Cleef.

When the poster reads, "Johnny Depp is Rango," it's not kidding. Using an updated type of digital rotoscoping (the motion-capture animation technique pioneered by Disney in Snow White), Depp and his co-stars acted out entire scenes together on camera, from which their animated characters' physical movements were generated. This not only imbues the characters with loopy humanoid grace, the actors playing off each other keeps the dialogue fast and fresh as well.

Also fun (besides the non-stop in-jokes referencing everything from The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars to True Grit, and—yes—Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas), is the small-scale, critter-sized town itself, with its discarded tin can outhouses, its water supply housed in the bank in a giant water cooler jug, and its clock tower perched on a spice box marked "Thyme." But best of all is Rango himself, with his rolling gait and game demeanor, part Kermit the Frog, part Captain film_rangoJack Sparrow, and all Depp, a one-man onscreen party.

RANGO

★★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>

With the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, Bill Nighy, and Abigail Breslin. Written by John Logan. Directed by Gore Verbinski. A Paramount release. Rated PG. 107 minutes.

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