Rango, an animated western, is too enjoyably weird to ignore - even if it's not entirely clear exactly who the movie is for. Film buffs? Maybe. Fans of clever invention? Sure. Kids? I'm not certain.
Think Sergio Leone meets Chuck Jones with traces of Chinatown thrown in, and you'll begin to understand what director Gore Verbinski has wrought, an animated western that plays with genre clichés and assembles some of the year's most vivid imagery.
Rango, from another script that feels as if it has been composed by tossing ingredients into a Cuisinart, is made tolerable by its blend of silly humor, arch wit, savvy movie references and a few major surprises. The movie can be fun, but it's difficult to imagine that the littlest kids will get much beyond the cartoon antics supplied by Verbinski, who proved himself a master of visual comedy in a couple of Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Did I mention that Rango's hero is a lizard voiced by Johnny Depp, an actor who's no stranger to nutty proceedings? Well, that's what Verbinski gives us, a bug-eyed wannabe gunslinger who - I'm giving away nothing here - ultimately saves the day.
Expelled from his terrarium early in the movie, the lizard - apparently a pet chameleon - wanders into the desert where he winds up in the aptly named town of Dirt, a dusty outpost that's on the verge of running out of water.
Our lizard hero tells a tall tale, defends the town from a ravenous hawk (sort of), winds up as sheriff and begins fulfilling his destiny, something he's been encouraged to do by a sagacious armadillo called Roadkill (Alfred Molina).
Verbinski doesn't skimp on characters. In fact, he overloads the screen with everything from rats to bats. There's Beans (Isla Fisher), a spunky lizard gal who's trying to save her daddy's ranch. Ned Beatty gives voice to the town's mayor, a turtle with a big hat and an ego to match, and Bill Nighy gives sinister life to the hired gun in the piece, the frightening Rattlesnake Jake.
This highlight reel only skims the surface of a big-time voice cast that also includes Abigail Preslin, Ray Winstone, Harry Dean Stanton and Timothy Olyphant - not to mention a mariachi band composed of four owls.
Visually striking, Rango eventually floods the screen with action that includes a heavy barrage of gun fire that's appropriate to a genre spoof, but a bit much for little kids. Rattlesnake Jake gave me the willies, so I'm assuming that younger kids may find him scary, as well. And some of the language is ... well ... indelicate.
Somewhere around the three-quarter mark my enjoyment flagged, maybe because the story suffers from literary indigestion: It's overstuffed.
Still, Verbinski deserves credit for turning Rango into an impressively creative entertainment whose excesses are redeemed by the twang of its best dialog and the sheer wildness of its heart.