Say what you will about Rango, the computer-animated Western riding hard on Johnny Depp doing the voice of a lizard — just don't call it business as usual. I don't know what this surreal splash of trippy performance art is exactly, but a kiddie cartoon about good, bad and ugly desert critters dressed as cowboys and townsfolk doesn't cut it. As soon as Rango, a pet chameleon who lives in a terrarium with a plastic fish, escapes to Dirt, a 21st-century Wild West town that hires him as sheriff, the film bids adios to convention.
Rango, bred to blend in, finds himself forced to take center stage as a hero, to question what constitutes good and evil, and to work his way through a full-blown existential crisis. This is something that David Lynch might have directed, not Gore Verbinski, known for guiding Depp through the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Maybe Verbinski's early days as a punk rocker explains why he linked up with acclaimed screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator), who began his career writing plays about the Leopold and Loeb "thrill kill" case and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Rango is rated PG, which suggests parental guidance. Start by explicating the nod to Depp's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a car driven by a guy in a Hawaiian shirt, a gonzo allusion to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Rango wears the same shirt). Or how about the tortoise mayor (voiced by Ned Beatty) channeling the rapacious John Huston in Chinatown as he parches throats to seize water rights and build his own corrupt empire. Oddest is Rango's spaghetti-Western encounter with the Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant) in a Clint Eastwood poncho. "Is this heaven?" asks Rango. Try parsing the answer: "If this was heaven, kid, we'd all be eating Pop-Tarts with Kim Novak." Skeleton key, anyone?
What's up with this movie? It looks great, thanks to Industrial Light & Magic. And Verbinski's idea to have the voice cast, including Isla Fisher as Rango's lizard love and Abigail Breslin as a cactus mouse, interact with one another in costumes (instead of in isolated sound booths), results in a lively, lived-in ambience. There's a slew of banditos and even a mariachi band to predict Rango's death in song. Plus a villain, Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), slithery, sizable and scary enough to keep you up nights. In a pinch, Rango's mantra is "crunchy, creamy, cookie, candy, cupcake." Way too sweet. I'm thinking, "brainy, batty, buzz, bong, bananas." Rango is like nothing you've ever seen.