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Animated Spaghetti Western

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

When word leaked out that Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore would turn his talent and skills to a feature-length animated film, with Industrial Light & Magic animation, doubts were raised about the wisdom of Verbinski’s decision to venture where so many other filmmakers have gone (and failed). However, the result of Verbinski’s collaboration with ILM, Rango, is never less than charming and nothing less than brilliant. It's the first strong candidate for next year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

When we first meet Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp), a pet chameleon, he’s directing, acting in, and writing (on the fly) a story involving a hero-protagonist who suspiciously sounds and looks just like Rango. Rango and the fish tank he calls home are sitting in the back seat of his owners’ car, but an accident leaves his fish tank home shattered and Rango alone in the desert.

If Rango is starting to sound like another tired riff on Toy Story (i.e., toys or talking animals searching for their owners and vice versa), it’s not. We never actually see or hear from Rango’s owners again. Roadkill (Alfred Molina), an armadillo and the direct cause of the accident that’s led to Rango’s unhappy predicament, delivers a metaphysical lecture about the vagaries of existence (and the purpose thereof) before sending a reluctant Rango off on a quest of self-discovery across the sun-parched desert.

That existential journey takes Rango across the searing desert. Naïve, but resourceful, Rango manages to escape the predatory attention of a hawk, encounters a fair maiden (and obligatory romantic interest), Beans (Isla Fisher), a desert lizard who freezes up at inopportune times, and ventures into the aptly-named town of Dirt. With its wide, dusty streets, saloon, bank, general store, and other non-descript wooden buildings, Dirt’s modeled on a 19th-century Old West town. When Rango’s bluster leads to inadvertent heroism, he becomes an instant town favorite and, thanks to Dirt’s Mayor (Ned Beatty), a desert tortoise, the new sheriff. A near-catastrophic water shortage, however, quickly brings Rango into conflict with the town’s Powers-That-Be and a plan affectionately lifted by Verbinski and screenwriter John Logan (Sweeney Todd, The Aviator, Gladiator) from Chinatown.

Logan’s script, ably matched or elevated by Depp and the other actors, including Abigail Breslin as a pessimistic mouse, Bill Nighy as the fearsome Rattlesnake Jake, Stephen Root in several roles, and Timothy Olyphant as the Spirit of the West (whose real identity is best left for moviegoers to discover for themselves), never falters or fails, providing the actors with an overabundance of clever, sophisticated, adult-oriented dialogue.

Breaking away from the Pixar-DreamWorks style of animation (i.e., merchandise-friendly animals and toys), the talking animals in Rango, with one or two exceptions, including the titular hero, tend, not toward cartoon prettiness, but to Tod Browning-inspired grotesques, each one as, if not more, memorable than the last. That might be off-putting to some adults, but most children will probably revel in the distinct animal designs, the off-kilter set pieces, and Depp’s most appealing performance since he stumbled into the hearts and minds of moviegoers everywhere as Captain Jack Sparrow eight years ago in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

It probably helped that Depp and the other members of the cast performed their respective roles on a set rather than separately in the sound booth. ILM’s animators took their cues from the cast’s physical performances (what Verbinski calls “emotion-capture” as opposed to “motion-capture”).

Verbinski also brought along Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer (Inception, Sherlock Holmes, The Dark Knight) to channel his inner Ennio Morricone for the Spaghetti Western-inspired score. Fans of Spaghetti Westerns or even Westerns in general will delight at Zimmer’s integration of Morricone’s iconic music into the score.

Verbinski’s homage to Spaghetti Westerns, however, never overwhelms Rango’s story of self-discovery, the steady bursts of verbal wit, the periodic action scenes, or the integration thereof into one of the most consistently engaging, entertaining animated films in recent memory, an animated equal to or even better than last year’s bumper crop.