Johnny Depp has not been on top of his game recently. His performance in the much-maligned "The Tourist" was largely forgettable, and I would argue that his Mad Hatter portrayal in "Alice in Wonderland" was an offshoot of his Willie Wonka role in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
So I'm happy to report that my faith in Depp has been restored with his voice work as a lizard in the new animated tale "Rango." And it took his "Pirates of the Caribbean" director, Gore Verbinski, to get his groove back.
Depp is Rango, a chameleon looking to complete his story. He's an unknown outsider who becomes a hero of the drought-ravaged town of Dirt. But before his heroic stories, Rango is a sheltered family pet facing a major identity crisis. How can he aim to be somebody when his purpose in life is to blend in?
Rango's transformative journey begins in the desert when his owners accidentally lost him in a car accident. Confused and bewildered, Rango ends up in the gritty, gun-slinging town of Dirt, a lawless outpost run by its longtime Mayor (Ned Beatty).
Written by John Logan ("Gladiator," "Sweeney Todd"), it is great to see an animated film that is not based on any previous work, or a sequel. "Rango" is truly original that effectively captures the spirit of the West.
I also enjoyed the way the movie simultaneously embraces and subverts the notions of the Western genre. As soon as you think you can predict the movie, "Rango" changes course and plays with your perception.
After gallanting Dirt's wily and whimsical creatures with his tall tales, Rango is appointed Sheriff by the Mayor. But Dirt has a far bigger problem -- the town's water supply is dwindling.
This comical and engaging adventure's walk in the Wild West is aided by commendable performances. Isla Fisher voices Beans, the heroine who steals Rango's heart. Alfred Molina also shows up as the Roadkill who becomes Rango's mentor.
But Bill Nighy's Rattlesnake Jake is my favorite among the supporting cast. He's a western villain in black who helps to deliver the movie's western message. I also enjoyed the singing Mariachis who are the storytellers of the movie. Pay close attention, you may hear Verbinski's voice as Lupe, the Mariachi violin.
Verbinski seemed to have fun directing his first full-feature animated adventure. Sure, the action scenes are very similar to the spirit of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, but his canvass is innovative enough, thanks to the artful participation of Roger Deakins, the director of photography who shot "True Grit."
I truly admire "Rango" but my biggest problem with the movie is that it's made for grownups. Its intended audience, young kids, may not get the film's semi-dark tone. The younger viewers may also get bored in the middle part of the movie.
But "Rango" is exciting enough, and Depp is so good as a Reaganesque hero, that kids may follow along as the chameleon spins his stories.