A master of weird and eclectic characters – Edward Scissorhands, Capt. Jack Sparrow, Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka – Johnny Depp is an acting chameleon, able to convincingly morph into any role. In the animated flick “Rango,” Depp’s latest oddball role is literally a chameleon.

A master of weird and eclectic characters – Edward Scissorhands, Capt. Jack Sparrow, Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka – Johnny Depp is an acting chameleon, able to convincingly morph into any role.


In the animated flick “Rango,” Depp’s latest oddball role is literally a chameleon. He voices a swashbuckling lizard who told a lie and ends up in a situation that takes on a life of its own.


There’s the lesson, kids: Don’t tell lies. Or you might end up the sheriff of a woebegone Western town that’s inhabited by desert critters like a precocious pig-tailed mouse named Priscilla (Abigail Breslin) and a tough country girl lizard, Beans (Isla Fisher). The town is on the verge of drying up because of a mysterious drought. Rango attempts to save the day. But not before he has to take on a predatory bird, a threatening rattlesnake (Bill Nighy) and corrupt politicians (Ned Beatty). All in a family movie, no less.


From the moment the film opens with a mariachi band of owls functioning as a Greek chorus, you know you’re in for something different than what the animated houses of Pixar, even Dreamworks, have cranked out. In “Rango,” the first animated feature from Industrial Light & Magic, there is no vibrant and shiny animation, nor are there cute monsters, talking toys or lovable minions. “Rango” is sweat, grim, dust and vermin. After all, the town itself is named Dirt.


What develops is, most of the time, not exactly family fare. The humor in John Logan’s (“Gladiator,” “The Last Samurai”) script skews slightly dark. Parents will get it; kids might not. That’s not surprising, though, coming from a director like Gore Verbinski, who isn’t afraid to push boundaries. Verbinski, who helmed Depp in the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, offers a sendup to spaghetti Westerns with nods to “Blazing Saddles,” “Apocalypse Now” and the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. For the latter, just take a look at the movie poster of another Depp film, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and compare it to “Rango.”


Verbinski is ambitious and takes some risks. Lizards – no matter how loopy – snakes and vultures are not cuddly. I don’t see Rattlesnake Jake being made into a stuffed animal anytime soon. It all comes down to the fact that this is grown-up animation, a Western, really, with adult laughs, scares, shoot-outs, chases, vices (these critters smoke!) and a 107-minute run time. Since “Rango” isn’t Verbinski’s first foray into family flicks (that would be “Mousehunt”), he adds just enough kid-friendly accoutrements to attract younger audiences – you know, fart jokes, a snake with a Gatling gun and shameless slapstick.


Also lending their voices are Alfred Molina, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone and Timothy Olyphant as the Spirit of the West, doing his best Clint Eastwood impression from “Man With No Name.” However, big-time names don’t make an animated film a sure-fire winner. You still need a decent narrative and full-bodied characters. That’s where Verbinski and his charges come up short. Solving the case of the town’s missing water isn’t compelling.


On the flip side, Verbinski is able to strike a balance of comedy, action and adventure. He also displays an amazing skill for creating this tiny Western reptilian universe. But, Rango is the only character of any interest, and even that is fleeting because the quirky lizard is never fully realized. His journey to self-awareness is the heart of the film and that might be too deep for younger viewers.


When we first meet Depp’s animated alter-ego, Rango is a lost soul. He has no name, no home and no identity until he wanders into a saloon and tells a fictitious version of his life to be accepted by the townspeople. One lie leads to another until it all blows up in his face.


There’s a walking-off-into-sunset ending that’s satisfying enough, but most of the irony in the film will be appreciated by an older audience.


Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com.


RANGO (PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking.) Cast includes Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, Timothy Olyphant. 2.5 stars out of 4.