By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Minutes into the audaciously animated Rango, I wondered whether someone had slipped peyote into my soft drink. This is as trippy as a 'toon can be, even before Hunter S. Thompson pops in for a cameo suggesting why he feared and loathed imaginary lizards in Las Vegas.
Rango begins in a delusional state and goes gonzo from there, spoofing those corny comedies about city slickers turned shakiest guns in the Wild West, with a hero chameleon jittering like Don Knotts and quipping like Bob Hope. Toss in a plot borrowing heavily from Chinatown, of all movies, sagebrush advice from an astonishing Spirit of the West, and a menagerie of characters unsuited for plush toys.
This movie is obviously not right in the head, and I love it.
Director Gore Verbinski has absolutely no intention of following standard animation procedure, not in his desert-brown backgrounds or frantic calamities like the car accident sending Rango on his off-kilter quest. The Jack Palance of the piece, a giant reptilian gunslinger named Rattlesnake Jake, is nightmare material for small children. Much of Rango's humor will sail over their heads, anyway.
Johnny Depp voices the accidentally intrepid chameleon, reuniting with Verbinski and losing none of their Pirates of the Caribbean chemistry in the format change. Verbinski recorded Depp and his co-stars as they acted out scenes together, unlike the looping and editing of most animated films. The ensemble dynamic gives each joke extra zip, and John Logan's script is packed with them.
Rango is a dude in the Easterner sense of the word, an aspiring actor-playwright staging one-lizard productions in a fish tank. That lonesome lifestyle is literally shattered, and Rango gets stranded on a Mojave highway, where a kindly armadillo with a tire groove in his midsection tells him to go west. He winds up in a parched town populated by desert critters and spins a yarn about gunslinging exploits to impress the locals. Then he must back it up.
Verbinski invests each frame of Rango with Looney Tunes vitality and comically grotesque wit. He takes familiar desert cliches — cacti, road runners, scorching sun — and twists them into unexpected visual puns and anachronisms. Even a rustler's rhapsody like Cool, Clear Water is presented as a cue for a flash mob. Each time you think Rango can't get any stranger or funnier, Verbinski turns over another limestone rock and finds inspiration underneath.
Rango is worth the ticket price for one delirious sequence alone, when the hero gets a pep talk from the Spirit of the West, the animated version of exactly who he should be (although it's Timothy Olyphant's voice). It's a jaw-dropper that signals just how far Verbinski will reach for odd logic. Rango is wild, woolly and weird, and the first movie of 2011 that I must see again.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.