The Wild West is a ripe setting for adventure, discovery, heroes -- and a chameleon? This is the setup for Rango, an animated movie that's about a fish out of water -- or, more exactly, a reptile in a town just about out of water.

Rango opens with the title reptile (Johnny Depp) as a family pet, practicing his acting and very, very lonely. A bumpy ride leaves this reptile stranded in the desert, near the highway, where a philosophical armadillo (Alfred Molina) sends the reptile to the aptly-named town of Dirt.

In Dirt, water is the town commodity -- and in very short supply. The reptile creates a larger-than-life persona for himself called Rango and, through tall tales (killing the Jenkins brothers with one bullet; "All seven of them?") and an accidental victory over a hawk, becomes the town sheriff out to solve the mystery of what happened to the town's water.

For a romantic interest, Beans (Ilsa Fisher) is a reptile out to save her daddy's farm; she also goes motionless from time to time -- "It's a defense mechanism." For a cute kid, Priscilla (Abigail Breslin) is a sloth-like critter that is always armed. The Mayor (Ned Beatty) is a turtle with a motorized wheelchair and a suspicious way about him. Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton) is a blind burrowing bank robber whose kin ride bats and throw dynamite. A chorus of mariachi band owls provide commentary during the movie. Finally there's Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), a terrifying, giant villain who is merciless, has a gatling gun at the end of his tale -- and only stayed away from Dirt because of the hawk Rango killed.

Rango brings Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski together again (they also work on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), and Rango shares some of the flaws of the Pirates films. Johnny Depp's voicework is reminiscent of Jim Henson's Kermit the Frog, but after a while his bragging, comically inept, accidentally lucky persona starts to wear thin. The movie owes a lot to Chinatown (a whole lot) and the "Flight of the Valkyries" sequence from Apocalypse Now, but it's a pretty straightforward kids' film about false hope, disappointment, and redemption. Rango is also slightly long: There are at least two action sequences where they could have wrapped up the film, instead of the actual finale.

The only thing that stood out for me here were the visual effects -- and they are stunning. The texture of every creature here is amazing, from hairy sloths to the skinny Rango to the monstrous Rattlesnake Jake. You'll feel thirsty after seeing the desert town of Dirt: Dryness and the parching sun seem to have left its mark on everything. Apart from the tremendous visual impact, though Rango is ordinary stuff.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

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