'Pirates' director brings flair to animated Western

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Director Gore Verbinski turned a lot of heads when he abandoned his “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise to make “Rango,” an animated Nickelodeon Western populated entirely with talking animals. However, “Rango” is the perfect fit for Verbinski, a genre-based hilarious film that’s just as much for adults as it is for kids.

Johnny Depp voices Rango, a chameleon who loses his owners after his aquarium is launched out of the backseat of a car. He sets off into the desert trying to find water, and eventually, he arrives at the dried-up town of Dirt. His theatrical nature earns him the title of best gunfighter in the Old West. The town buys his schtick, half from luck and half from Rango’s pure charisma, and Rango is made sheriff just in time to deal with an impending water shortage.

The cast is great all around, with each voice actor completely disappearing into his or her roles. With the likes of Depp, Alfred Molina, Timothy Olyphant and Ray Winstone, a lesser director might be inclined to capitalize on his or her actors, but with “Rango,” the characters and the voice actors are more or less indistinguishable, making the audience wait until the end credits to match the voice to the character. Depp, in particular, is phenomenal, creating a character just as fascinating as anyone he’s played before, without the added bonus of actually being on screen.

Much of what makes “Rango” memorable is the sheer amount of creativity infused into every frame and character. From the titular chameleon that only wants to stand out to the villainous rattlesnake with a machine gun for a tail to the bats that double as attack planes, there isn’t a moment in “Rango” when there’s nothing to marvel at or be entertained by.

Verbinski guarantees this by also packing the film with hilarious references for adults and bombastic, frantic action scenes for the kids. A sequence halfway through the film in which Rango outruns of a posse of bats is a magnificent sequence of barely controlled chaos and proves to be the best action scene of the year so far.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about “Rango” is that, while it’s kid-friendly, it’s very much a Western at heart. The film has all the tropes of a classic Western in the vein of “High Noon,” but what could be predictable is revitalized by the sheer amount of energy on screen and the director and cast’s obvious commitment to the material.

On the other hand, “Rango” does have a handful of flaws. The story stalls a bit too often, and most of the background characters are undefined, blending together to form a shapeless mass of one-liners and exposition. However, these are minor quibbles with a gorgeously animated film.

“Rango” stands as 2011’s first truly great movie. It’s a vividly animated, wonderful film that will entertain kids and adults on equal levels thanks to Verbinski’s confident direction and Depp’s top-of-his-game vocal performance.