Leapin’ Lizard!

Rango is one loony ’toon; it’s also kind of genius

Many questions filtered through the transom of my mind while watching Rango, the exhilaratingly odd animated tale of a lizard (voiced by Johnny Depp) who falls out of an aquarium and finds himself playing sheriff in a Wild West desert town populated by a ragtag bunch of literal varmints: Did the Coen brothers stage a coup and take over Pixar? Who thought of this and where can I find some of whatever they were smoking? Are the kids in the audience having as much fun as I am? And why did it take so long for someone to make an animated feature that doesn’t render its human characters in the image of creepy Bratz dolls?

Rehashing the plot would only deny you the delightful experience of letting Rango unfold before you in all of its endearingly quirky glory, so instead I’ll just try to capture its essence. Try to imagine Blazing Saddles performed by slightly off-kilter digital Muppets designed by Tim Burton and you’re on the right general track (Rango is directed by Gore Verbinski, the man behind the kooky Pirates of the Caribbean movies). The plot is simple enough for children as young as 6 to follow, but the dialogue doesn’t pander to the shortest common denominator. Instead, the script clicks along like the spinning barrel of a revolver, filled with nuance and humor clearly intended for adults (unless your child can appreciate references to prostate exams and Dirty Harry movies). The animation is flawless, and the sets and cinematography are similarly incredible, featuring the types of camera angles and sweeping vistas you might expect to see in a John Ford Western (look for a Las Vegas to make a cameo in the third act).

But one of the best things about Rango is that it lets its hero be so incredibly weird. From the opening moments, it’s clear that something is a little off about our protagonist, who resembles the Geico gecko as sketched by Edward Gorey. Rango is lonely, possibly even a little crazy. But he’s well-meaning and sweet, without falling into a saccharine stereotype. His gal Friday and potential love interest, Beans (voiced in a terribly convincing Southern drawl by Isla Fisher), is similarly bizarre: A fellow lizard dressed like a Wagon Train extra, complete with corkscrew curls, Beans occasionally freezes mid-sentence as a defense mechanism. Other memorable characters include a quartet of mariachi birds who narrate the proceedings, a shaman-like armadillo (Alfred Molina), a young gun-slinging mouse with Little House on the Prairie braids (Abigail Breslin), and Rattlesnake Jake (an unrecognizable Bill Nighy), a venomous villain who shoots bullets from his tail.

The only drawbacks to Rango are that it draws out the action a mite too long—very occasionally the Western-spoofing gets heavy-handed and halts the plot—and that it may sail over the heads of some younger viewers. But those are small prices to pay for a film that breaks the mold so gleefully. I’ve never seen an animated feature fly its freak flag quite this high, trusting that its audience, regardless of age, is savvy enough to roll with it. Let’s hope this is the start of a trend.

Rango (PG) ★★★★☆