The lizard who lends his name to Rango does pretty well for himself. His accomplishments are even more impressive considering all the strikes against him in this simpatico if effortful computer-animated family comedy about the value of self-actualization and the appeal of American Westerns. For one thing, Rango — the chameleon, voiced by Johnny Depp — is involuntarily, magically launched from the 21st century into his new life in the 19th-century Old West as the result of a shattering road accident in the Mojave Desert at the beginning of the picture. (We can only assume the family in whose car the pet was traveling perished. Never mind, don’t look, they’re never spoken of.)
For another thing, Rango — the movie — takes a long time finding a story line to stick with. First the lizard, liberated from domestication by humans, gets a crash course in outdoor life skills. (In the desert, blend in!) He staggers into a dusty town called Dirt and decides to reinvent himself as a gunslinging hero. (In town, stand out!) After being rewarded for inadvertent acts of bravery as town sheriff, he decides that being a hero is too hard. Then he changes his mind and sticks to his, er, gun. He’s fickle, he’s a chameleon. So sue him.
Depp brings the same playful charm and love of make-believe swashbuckling that he showed in his Pirates of the Caribbean adventures, which were directed, as is Rango, by tumult-prone Gore Verbinski. Thanks to Depp’s own chameleonlike performance and the camaraderie of the cast’s voice-recording sessions run like live theater, the script has a lively, improvised feel. (The sardonic screenplay was written by Gladiator’s John Logan and developed from a story by Logan, Verbinski, and James Ward Byrkit.)
The lizard’s costars include Beans (Isla Fisher), a girl reptile with true grit; the mayor of Dirt (Ned Beatty), a tortoise who controls his town’s dwindling water by taking his cues from John Huston’s sinister Noah Cross in Chinatown; a philosophizing armadillo (Alfred Molina) with a lance borrowed from Don Quixote and a cartoon-Spanish accent borrowed from Antonio Banderas in Shrek; and the Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant), a man with no name who bears a close vocal and poncho-costumed resemblance to Clint Eastwood.
The biggest strike against Rango, though — for both the movie and the hero — is that the lizard is so damn ugly. As are his animated colleagues. And by ugly I mean remarkably, repellently, did this really test well with audiences? Jar Jar Binks ugly. The Geico gecko is a far, far more telegenic star than the asymmetrical, bulbous green creation whose face, with its hints of E.T. and Kermit the Frog DNA, fills so much of the screen so much of the time. Beans is worse: She’s got the kind of you guys are useless (so I’d better do this myself) gumption characteristic of so many heroines in family-oriented animated projects these days — and she really does look like Jar Jar’s reptilian cousin, crossbred with a strain of Avatar’s Na’vi genetic code.
The warty, hairy, tongue-flicking animal cast is all the more distracting for taking away from the production’s obviously loving, appealing attention to perspective and background detail. (Rango is the first full-scale animated feature generated by the redoubtable special-effects house of Industrial Light & Magic.) Care has gone into the re-creation of iconic shots from great American Westerns — Rango’s climax is pure High Noon — and in the last act, the story does coalesce into the satisfying shape of a classic showdown, during which the hero no one thought would last a day in such a mean old town prevails, not only against external evil but also against his own weaknesses. Neither Rango the mash-up movie nor Rango the lizard is particularly lovable. But there’s no denying the intrigue in its combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly. B?