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Ride 'Em, Chameleon! 'Rango' A Wild, Wacky Western

Dirt, a ramshackle town in the Mojave Desert, is so dry it might better be called Dust, but it sure proves fertile ground for Rango, an animated western that's effortlessly the most exhilarating flight of computer-drawn fancy since Ratatouille.

Rango's not just a kiddie-flick (though it has enough silly slapstick to qualify as a pretty good one). It's a real movie lover's movie, conceived as a Blazing Saddles-like comic commentary on genre that's as back-lot savvy as it is light in the saddle.

Populated by dog-eared rabbits, desiccated gophers, skinny mice and all sorts of other critters, the town of Dirt is presided over by a garrulous turtle (voiced by Ned Beatty) and regularly terrorized by predators. Chief among the varmints is Bad Bill (Ray Winstone), a Gila monster with a reptilian gang backing him up, and Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) who's got what looks like a Gatling gun where his brethren have rattles. But even Jake slithers away when pursued by the hawk that soars regularly overhead and that early in the film swoops after a screaming, seriously out-of-his-element chameleon (Johnny Depp) in a loud Hawaiian shirt.

How'd the chameleon get here? Long story. Let's just say he hit a bump in the road while seeking a true identity that he will find, more or less accidentally in this ghost-town-in-the-making. He's a hero, albeit not a conventional one. A lizard with no name, he's a suburban tenderfoot and thespian-in-training who's been raised in a terrarium with only a plastic tree, a wind-up fish and a broken doll as companions.

Still, chameleons are nothing if not adaptable, and once he's learned to walk the Western walk, this chameleon will be calling himself Rango, cozying up to a lady lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher), pinning on a sheriff's badge and — armed with more bravado than common sense — taking on bad guys.

If ever there's been an actor who knows how to change his stripes, it's pirate/gangster/Mad Hatter/demon barber/dude-with-scissors-for-hands Depp. So casting him as an actual chameleon must've seemed a no-brainer. That it's worked out so well was hardly a given, although with Gore Verbinski in the director's chair, it always had a good shot.

Rango is Verbinski's first leap into computer animation (not a long leap from the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, admittedly) — and one he makes with the joy of someone who is well-versed in the limitations of live-action and can't wait to get around them.

Here, with help from the digital effects wizards at Industrial Light and Magic (also making their first foray into animation), he's framing shots from inside a rolling soda bottle, or from angles that are as deliriously unlikely as they are spectacularly cinematic, possibly because the great cinematographer Roger Deakins consulted on visuals. Deakins did the same thing a few years back on Wall-E, but it's clear that computer graphics have made advances since then.

The light in Rango is breathtaking — dusty, shimmering — and it seems at times as if Deakins realized that the photo-realism it allows for computer-graphic imagery gave him a chance to do all the shots that were too expensive or difficult to manage when he was shooting the live-action Westerns True Grit and No Country for Old Men. (It's worth noting that Rango is proudly and deliberately 2-D, and far smarter about giving depth to its images than any of its animated 3-D predecessors.)

Verbinski, meanwhile, is having a field day with riffs designed strictly for film buffs, and with dialogue so loopy it often sounds improvised. (He ignored industry convention and gathered his actors together in a sound studio rather than recording them in isolation.) There's hardly a big-sky stereotype he doesn't trick out with new tricks — wait till you catch the man-with-no-name corker he's come up with — but he and co-screenwriters John Logan and James Ward Byrkit are cribbing their plot points not just from classic Westerns but from the likes of Chinatown, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Apocalypse Now.

Kids will be too caught up in the shoot'em-ups to realize how much cleverness is sailing right over their heads, but if you're past adolescence, prepare to corral movie references as they stampede by. The more films you've seen, the more fun you'll have.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.