Depp voices a wildly animated western
In promotional ads for the new lizard-out-of-water family comedy “Rango,’’ much has been made of the fact that Johnny Depp and company didn’t just stand around in a studio jabbering into microphones but acted out the slapstick on a soundstage, with the digital animators taking the action from there.
It’s a novel approach that both works and doesn’t. The film is an amiably bonkers fusion of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, “Chinatown,’’ and more standard funny-animal fare, but the on-set filming seems to have welded the cast together into a cohesive and high-spirited comedy troupe. You can feel the actors tossing energy, one-liners, and limbs off each other with gusto.
Just as often, though, everyone mills around waiting for the story to go somewhere. “Rango’’ wants to send up every sagebrush cliche it can, but the screenplay just piles those cliches on top of each other and waits for alchemy to happen. The director is Gore Verbinski, the mastermind of the “Pirates of the Caribbean’’ franchise, and like those movies, “Rango’’ is a highly watchable but somewhat frustrating mix of sloppy plotting, rascally attitude, and Big Action.
One thing I will say: The thing looks great. The first digitally animated film to be made entirely in-house at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic — I know, who’da thunk? — “Rango’’ is a gorgeously textured visual re-imagining of a classic Western moviescape. The key color is brown, of course, but within that palette, the magic minions of ILM find infinite shades of gold, tan, mud, straw, sunlight, mountain, desert, and tobaccy juice.
Not to mention the rest of the spectrum, since the hero is a chameleon. A household pet with an overactive imagination, he’s initially nameless, but after a near-collision bounces him from his owner’s car into the Mojave Desert, he washes up at a dusty frontier town and dubs himself Rango. The citizens — an unwashed menagerie of burrowing owls, buzzards, horned toads, gophers — buy his rip-snorting tall tales of plugging seven villains with one bullet and quickly elect him sheriff. Didn’t Bob Hope star in this once upon a time?
Yes, and probably Porky Pig, too, but they didn’t have the richly nubbled eye-cones of Rango, nor his appealing bluster. Depp gives the little guy spirit and likability, and he’s relaxed enough to share the soundtrack with a cast fat with characters. Isla Fisher (“Wedding Crashers’’) voices the role of Beans, a comely iguana trying to save the ranch her daddy left her; with her immense lamplike eyes, she’s a ringer for the actress Illeana Douglas. Bill Nighy is a gun-slinging rattlesnake, Abigail Breslin a li’l girl mouse, Alfred Molina a Quixotic armadillo aptly named Roadkill. Ned Beatty, last heard as the evil pink teddy bear in “Toy Story 3,’’ is now the shady tortoise town mayor, who owes much of his personality and some of his dialogue to John Huston’s Noah Cross in “Chinatown.’’
As in that film, the politics of water drive much of the action, but “Rango’’ also throws in as many Western elements as it can think of — a saloon scene, a posse chase, a showdown in a canyon, a shootout on Main Street — without much rhyme or reason. There’s a cameo appearance by one Raoul Duke of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’’ and late in the film up pops Leone’s Man with No Name himself, voiced by Timothy Olyphant and facially reconfigured just enough to keep Clint Eastwood from litigating.
It’s a fun movie and a noisy one, but not the great work of family-friendly gonzo this particular crew could have created with just a little more focus. Back to your workstations, boys, and let’s see what else you’ve got.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.