Correction to This Article
This review of "Rango" incorrectly said that the movie marked the first time Johnny Depp had made an animated feature. He provided voice talent for Tim Burton's 2005 animated film "Corpse Bride."
Ann Hornaday reviews 'Rango'

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.

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