Movie review in the Friday, March 4 Oregonian....
The funny and powerfully weird "Rango" is probably the closest I've seen a big-budget computer-animated feature get to the comic vibe of my favorite Chuck Jones cartoons -- specifically, the Bugs/Porky Western spoof "Drip-Along Daffy." Director Gore Verbinski ("Pirates of the Caribbean") and his animation team are really, really good at aping that Jones trick where you follow a big sight gag with a subtle sideways glance.
But saying "Rango" occasionally evokes the best of Termite Terrace only captures part of the experience of this strange, specific cartoon. The story concerns a domestic chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) who falls out of the back of his owners' car in the middle of the Mojave Desert. He wanders into a tiny, drought-ravaged town populated by animals and decides to reinvent himself as a heroic gunslinger. This plan may backfire. He is also followed around by a chorus of mariachi-band owls who seem to be actively rooting for his demise.
It's a pretty standard hero's journey, really, but there's nothing standard about the way Verbinski executes that story. He seems deranged in the best possible sense, liberated from the grind of shooting two sub-par "Pirates" sequels back-to-back. The movie has an odd, grown-up reference-set -- everything from Leone to "Mad Max" to "Chinatown" to "Apocalypse Now" to Hunter S. Thompson. The animation by ILM is funkier (and more violent) than the usual Cal Arts-inflected stuff you see in multiplexes. The character design is asymmetrical, bumpy and deformed, often to hilarious effect. Hans Zimmer's score is comically epic. There are at least two surreal desert-hallucination scenes and a canyon chase that might be the best over-the-top set piece I've seen since "The Good, The Bad, The Weird." And the comedy doesn't feel even a tiny bit dumbed-down; I suspect the adult jokes will sail over kids' heads while they laugh at the sight of an all-animal posse roaring across a John Ford landscape on roadrunners, but frankly, the adult jokes are the best parts of the movie.
At the moment, I have no idea how "Rango" will play to young audiences -- it feels like a movie made for adults (or maybe just for the animators themselves) that will crawl into a certain kind of child's mind and geek him or her out for years. I could be wrong about that. But it's definitely not an insult.
(105 min., rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking) Grade: B-plus
'Rango' (The Oregonian, Friday, March 4, 2011)