RANGO / ***½

Distributor: Paramount
Release Date: March 4, 2011
Genre: Animation
Running Time: 107 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

I was definitely wrong about my first impressions of “Rango” when the trailer debuted. I was not a big fan of Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski’s last project together, the horribly overrated and never ending “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, and it just looked too cutesy.

What I got instead was a clever and thoroughly entertaining old west tale with some terrific vocal performances from Depp and the supporting cast. Depp stars as a pet chameleon that lives in blissful ignorance in his aquarium. One day during a car trip, the aquarium falls out of the car and breaks. The owners don’t come back for him, and the chameleon is out in the world for the first time.

Out in the scorching hot desert, he’s in desperate search of water. A helpful armadillo aptly named Roadkill (Alfred Molina) tells him he’ll find water in Dirt, a town a day’s journey away. When he makes it there, he quickly meets Beans (Isla Fisher), a fast-talking iron-willed lizard who has an odd habit of freezing in the middle of a tirade. She of course will become the love interest, and the two make an affable pair.

Dirt is run by the Mayor (Ned Beatty, who specializes in sleazy animated characters), who speaks about a town-wide water shortage but never seems to be at a shortage for himself. The chameleon, who fancies himself an actor, realizes that no one in this town knows him, so he can be whomever he wants, so he invents a heroic character for himself with the name Rango.

With the town in need of a new sheriff, the Mayor decides Rango would be the perfect man for the job. When what little is left of the town water supply is stolen, Rango rounds up a posse to chase it down. This is a formulaic story but it’s a successful formula for a reason.

The animation is across the board outstanding. Rango resembles a cross between Captain Jack Sparrow and Hunter S. Thompson, so Depp fits effortlessly into the role and makes it one of his best. The townspeople are a mixture of desert lizards that all have a distinct look; I was aware of who each character was and what their motivations were at all times, unlike “Public Enemies.” The most impressive of all is Rattlesnake Jake (perfectly orated by Bill Nighy), one of the last true outlaws of the West. Timothy Olyphant adds an effective cameo as The Spirit of the West.

It may not reach the intellectual heights of a Pixar offering, but “Rango” is a pleasant surprise in the spring movie doldrums.

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