★★★ / ★★★★
A chameleon named Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) was throwing a play for himself, an inanimate fish and a headless barbie being his co-stars, when his terrarium was literally thrown off the car after his owner violently swerved on the freeway. He was left to fend for himself in the cruel desert until he met Beans (Isla Fisher), a strange lizard who unconsciously froze up from time to time, and the two headed to a town called Dirt. Beans and the Mayor (Ned Beatty) informed him that the town’s residents were in desperate need of water. Rango was to be sheriff in order to maintain law and order in the land. Written by John Logan and directed by Gore Verbinski, “Rango” was an unusual animated film because the characters were not adorable, more than half of the jokes appealed to adults, and the western milieu were not always easy on the eyes. However, I enjoyed it for those reasons because those elements were not something I immediately expected. I found myself focusing on the character’s facial expressions and body parts because they ranged from homely to downright strange. It was difficult not to appreciate the level of detail added in, for instance, a possum’s hair and the way they moved when the creature walked or the manner in which a lizard’s scale changed texture when it was doused with water. But the visuals were not only impressive when the camera remained static. There were a number of rather inspired visual acrobatics. I had two favorite action sequences. The first was when Rango was hunted by a hawk and he took refuge in an empty bottle. Just when we thought our protagonist was safe, it turned out that the hawk was smart enough to grasp the bottle by its neck, fly to a great height, and let go. The second involved a battle in the canyons between Rango and Dirtonians against the thieving moles that knew how to ride bats. They used guns and other explosives; it was absolute chaos but it was astonishing to watch because the things happening on the background were as interesting as things happening on the foreground. Halfway through the picture, I realized that perhaps the film was not for young children. Topics like death, torture, and mysticism were explored. Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) was introduced and exhibited true menace. One could easily get the feeling that he could eat any Dirtonian in one big gulp and not feel bad about it. The snake’s presence reminded me of Ron Clements and John Musker’s “Aladdin” when Jafar turned into a giant cobra. There was also a scene involving a Clint Eastwood-type figure known as the Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant) when Rango experienced an identity crisis. While I thought it was bearable, I wasn’t sure children could endure speeches about one’s place in the world. I enjoyed “Rango” because it wasn’t afraid to be different. It wasn’t cute but not all animated films need to be.