Rango: Johnny Depp in Wild Wild West

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Johnny Depp gives such a colorful and vivid performance in the new animated feature “Rango” that he not only elevates the whole film, but also manages to erase all the bad memories from his last appearance, in “The Tourist.”

Over the past decade or so, Depp has enjoyed particularly fruitful collaborations with two very different directors: Tim Burton and (most recently “Sweeney Todd” and “Alice in Wonderland”) and Gore Verbinsky, the force behind the mash hit franchise “The Pirates of the Caribbean.”

With “Rango,” a loving, offbeat tribute to the uniquely American genre of the Western, Verbinsky has made a verbally witty, visually striking comedy-adventure, one that could be enjoyed (in different ways) by both younger and older viewers.  (It’s as playful and self-reflexive as the first “Shrek” feature, a decade ago).

Savvy viewers, who are aware of film history in general and the Western format in particular, will have fun detecting and spotting the various allusions that “Rango” makes to the history of the sagebrush, works ranging from John Ford to Sergio Leone to Sam Peckinpah.

Thematically, the story is rather simple, a chronicle of the comic (often hilarious) and truly transformative journey of Rango, a sheltered chameleon living as an ordinary family pet, while facing a major identity crisis.

There is good deal of both cleverness and irony in the tale’s premise, which posits the question of how high can you aim when your whole purpose in life is to blend in?

One of the most original and eccentric actors of his generation, Depp is perfectly cast as a chameleon, who wants to belong, to integrate and blend in.

The adventure is off to a good start, when Rango accidentally finds himself in the gritty, dusty, gun-slinging town of Dirt, a dangerously lawless outpost populated by the desert’s most wily and whimsical creatures.  It’s a place where the less-than-courageous lizard suddenly realizes he stands out.

In a bizarre turn of events, the new Sheriff Rango is welcomed as the last hope the town has been waiting for. Will he be able to fulfill expectations and play well his new role?

It’s to the credits of the writers that they have come up with an endlessly inventive, madly smart plot, full of action-packed situations and hilarious encounters with all kinds of outrageous characters.  In the process, Rango starts to become the hero he had once only pretended to be—or dreamed about being.

Visually striking, “Rango” evokes not only our fond memories of iconic Western directors (Leone and Sam Peckinpah included) and writers (Hunter S. Thompson), but also other quirky and visionary directors, such as the Coen brothers and Terry Gilliam.   I don’t wish to over-praise the movie, but some of its images are so surreal that they evoke the memory of artists such as Salvador Dali.

In this respect, credit should be given to Industrial Light + Magic, working on the company’s first (but certainly not last) animated feature, and to the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins ( nine-time Oscar nominee, most recently for the Coens’ Western remake, “True Grit”), who here served as visual consultant.

In addition to Depp, who truly shines throughout, the superlative cast includes excellent character actors, such as Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone and Timothy Olyphant as the Spirit of the West.

In its good moments, which are plentiful, “Rango” is an exciting new twist on the classic Western legend of the outsider who saves a whole town, and in the process also redeems himself.

I am surprised that there have not been many more animated features about the Old West; it’s certainly a new frontier for the genre.

Final note: Just when you thought that Disney-Pixar has a monopoly on the animated genre, comes a non-Pixar picture to prove that the field is open to all kinds of players.