Rango is the first animated genre movie I’ve seen that, with no exaggeration, works as well as its live-action counterparts possibly could. Gore Verbinski’s latest is a damn fine western, an entertaining throwback to classic B-pictures that pays clever tribute to its predecessors. Sure, it’s populated by walking/talking lizards, rattlesnakes, and Gila monsters. So what?

A lizard suffering from some serious existential torment, Rango (Johnny Depp) knows not who he is or of the world beyond the tank he’s called home and the pseudo-tropical knickknacks he’s made his friends. That changes forever when a karmic car accident finds the good-humored, tropical shirt-baring reptile abandoned in the Mojave Desert, his domicile destroyed forever. Making his way through the treacherous terrain, our hero dodges an enormous falcon, befriends roadkill named Roadkill (Alfred Molina) and is eventually escorted by fiery fellow lizard Beans (Isla Fisher) to the long-forgotten, crumbling town of Dirt.

The Dirt water supply has run dry, so its denizens, a motley crew of heavily bearded and thickly accented desert creatures, are slowly wheezing and choking to death on the dry scorched earth. The town needs a hero and Rango, ambitiously, welcomes the challenge. Handed the proverbial sheriff’s star, our clueless protagonist, never before so much as freed from his cage, must now satiate a restless populace, confront widespread corruption and uncover a solution to the crisis that could doom them all.

The central premise — conceived by Verbinski, screenwriter John Logan and James Ward Byrkit — recalls Chinatown, but Rango is filled with sly references to past classics from The Searchers to The Man with No Name trilogy. One of the chief pleasures to be had here is to marvel at the ways the filmmakers offer hosannas to legendary works and draw on various elements from them to shape the narrative.

High noon duels, gritty saloons, worn-down figures in tired hats and wrinkled clothes — the movie sports the stock elements of many a past gunslinger flick. Yet, Verbinski imbues them with such infectious energy, such a gleeful sense of wonder, that they feel welcome and new. The movie offers thrilling high-speed horseback rides, vulture-powered chases set to Ride of the Valkyries and laugh-out-loud clever allusions to the human world closing-in on Dirt’s micro universe.

Miraculously, Verbinski resists the standard PG-impulse to dumb down the proceedings by executing them with soppy family film moralizing or lazy sentimentality. With laser-like focus the filmmaker keeps the picture on target, with a flawed hero, bad-to-the-bone villains, an ensemble of memorable archetypes (including a Greek chorus of mariachi owls) and an uncompromising willingness to see the narrative to its natural conclusion.

The movie’s only diversions from that suspenseful, atmospheric template come in its excursions into Rango’s subconscious, as the lizard struggles to understand his place in the world before encountering the “Spirit of the West,” who looks and sounds an awful lot like a certain cinematic icon. Logan’s screenplay sharply considers the plight of the forgotten pet, chronicling the formation of Rango’s identity as the lizard copes with his suddenly increased agency over his fate.

The notion of a potent western centered on a lizard’s existential crisis might seem impossibly far-fetched. Yet, Verbinski delivers one of the fullest, most satisfying genre entries in some time, rife with an adventurous edge and welcome comic sensibility. The shooting method surely helped facilitate the production’s authentic, grounded spirit, with the actors acting out the story before the Industrial Light & Magic animation wizards took over. Future animation filmmakers take note.

There are, above all, two lessons to be learned from Rango. First: Pixar can’t claim a monopoly on smart, demographic-transcending family moviemaking. Second: Quality, affectionate B-picture tributes need not be the sole terrain of live-action filmmakers named Tarantino or Rodriguez.

If you’re still not convinced, however improbable it sounds, that a western about a town of desert creatures could possibly be this much fun, I’ve failed you, because it is.

The Upside: The movie is great fun, a terrific “meat-and-potatoes” western with an existential bent.

The Downside: Occasionally, only occasionally, things drag a bit.

On the Side: It’s only March 4, but this has been a solid year for animation so far, with Gnomeo & Juliet, Rango and next week’s Mars Needs Moms proving better than expected.


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