Spirit of the West

Johnny Depp invokes spirit of the west as cartoon lizard in Rango

Ridin’ roadrunners with Rango.

Ridin’ roadrunners with Rango.

Voices by Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Alfred Molina and Ned Beatty. Directed by Gore Verbinski. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG.
Rated 4.0

The antiquated desert town of Dirt is ramshackle and drought-ridden. It’s not all that far from what looks to be one of those modern highways running east-west through the Mojave Desert, replete with high-balling freight trucks and assorted road kill. Nevertheless, Dirt is also a relic of the Old West of the classic western movies—Shane, High Noon, Gunfight at the OK Corral, etc.

A stringy-looking lizard named Lars gets stranded there after the terrarium in which he’s traveling gets jounced out of a station wagon speeding along that desert highway. By the time he arrives on Dirt’s all-but-forsaken main street, this mythy-minded (and wildly imaginative) lizard has envisioned himself as a lone gunfighter named Rango, who’s come to Dirt to save it from all that ails it.

And that’s just the start of things for this exuberant mash-up of old western movies and much else, a vividly animated mini-epic in which all the characters—or nearly all—are animal caricatures who speak in distinctly human voices. What results is both a parody western and a rousingly antic revival of the old genre, a free-wheeling movie adventure and extravaganza studded with allusions and topical subplots—the West Coast water wars, desert mysticism, borderland culture, mythic journeys and spiritual quests, etc.

The water wars part of it evokes the history of the Owens Valley by way of multiple allusions to the film Chinatown—not the least of which is Dirt’s wheeler-dealer mayor, a tortoise voiced by Ned Beatty and channeling the John Huston character from that movie. Banks and investment scams, as seen in old westerns and the New West alike, also figure in.

The tale’s weirdly charming landscape includes shamanic desert shrubs and oversized roadrunners that the denizens use in place of horses. The Old West part of the tale is narrated, more or less, by four gently fatalistic owls in a mariachi band, and Rango’s quest for the Spirit of the West is set in motion by an armadillo named Roadkill (voice by Alfred Molina), who serenely dispenses spiritual advice despite having been nearly bisected by a passing 18-wheeler.

Johnny Depp provides the intriguingly variable voice of Lars/Rango, and the film is in some ways a Depp vehicle. Gore Verbinski, from Pirates of the Caribbean, is the director here, and most of this production lives in much the same eccentric/offbeat/darkly quirky territory as the Pirates films as well as others from Depp’s résumé—Dead Man, Ed Wood, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the last of which gets a brief, explicit homage midway through Rango.