By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 11:59 AM
"Rango" may not be Johnny Depp's first cartoon (all "SpongeBob" fans now hail the Big Kahuna), but it marks the mercurial actor's first foray into animated feature films - and the only question is, what took him so long?
Depp possesses one of the finest speaking voices in the business - a nimble, mellifluous instrument that can go from sexy growl to fey warble in no seconds flat. And he brings all that protean talent to bear on Rango, this ingenious neo-Western's protagonist who isn't just chameleon-like but a chameleon, period.
When Rango's aquarium gets jostled out of a traveling car, leaving its tender-footed inhabitant alone to fend for himself in the Mojave desert, Rango drags himself to the dusty town of Dirt, a dry and forbidding outpost ruled by a hard-shelled turtle mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty) and inhabited by a menagerie of rodents, amphibians, reptiles and sundry desert creatures. The most comely among them is a scaly, bug-eyed lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher), who has enough sand to get the better of "True Grit's" Mattie Ross in any horse trade.
Soon after arriving in Dirt, Rango - a born performer who assumes personae as easily as others of his species change color - seeks to impress the townsfolk in the local bar, spinning a tall tale of murderous derring-do. Now a rootin', tootin', bona-feeday hee-roe, Rango is appointed sheriff and soon thereafter discovers there might be more to the local water shortage than just a patch of bad weather.
A chase ensues, natch, and it's staged as an homage to the countless spaghetti westerns that, along with "Chinatown," clearly inspired director Gore Verbinski. Dipping into a palette infused with sere browns, tans and grays, and commanding a microscopic level of detail, Verbinski creates a world simultaneously fanciful and utterly believable. By the time "Rango" introduces the shaman-like Spirit of the West, viewers may find themselves wondering how they got Clint Eastwood to make a cameo.
A sun-baked symphony of rust and dust, "Rango" has a spiky, unsentimental appeal, sending out slightly risque jokes to parents while staying safely out of the danger zone for kids. And for a cartoon, it possesses perhaps the most unlikely added value of all: authenticity. "Rango" may actually be the first Hollywood movie to use the familiar screech of a red-tailed hawk, not as the voice of a soaring eagle or other bird of prey, but as the voice of a red-tailed hawk. Bonus points for that.
PG. At area theaters. Contains rude humor, mild profanity, action and smoking. 107 minutes.