In the town called Dirt, the only thing with any liquid content is the tobacco spit of parched varmints. Water is so precious, it's kept in a bank vault, except for the stash hoarded by the mayor. This town needs a hero, and it gets one in the stranger who calls himself Rango.
A CGI western comedy populated by desert critters, Rango gives the film year a belated jump start with a passel of movie-wise fun and a knockout animation style. It ransacks, then smartly twists elements of dozens of classic pictures, from Chinatown to Clint Eastwood's No Name westerns, to spin the familiar tale of a tenderfoot who's mistaken for a savior sheriff by rude hombres and the lone pretty girl. Except that the dude, Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp), and the girl, Beans (Isla Fisher), are lizards, the mayor (Ned Beatty) is a turtle, the chief gunslinger (Bill Nighy) is a rattlesnake mean enough to scare Samuel L. Jackson and the fatalistic sage of this sagebrush fable is a armadillo named Roadkill (Alfred Molina) who keeps trying to cross a dangerous highway because, he croaks, "this is my destiny."
For all the euphemistic cussin' (ratings-wise, Rango could be called a hard PG) and cigar puffing (which earned the picture a slap from the Smoke Free Movies lobby), this is at heart a pungent showbiz parable. The chameleon who will be Rango begins the story as a bon vivant thespian whose gig is a small terrarium owned by a family on the move. When the terrarium crashes on an interstate, the traveling player is stranded. Winding up in Dirt, he relies on his improv skills to win the job of sheriff. Not that the post is much in demand: the previous sheriff's grave reads THURS.-SAT. R.I.P.
The savvy humor that the movie mines from an actor's fears and bravado can be attributed to screenwriter John Logan, a master at portraying artistic temperaments in extremis; he wrote the TV movie RKO 281, about Orson Welles and the making of Citizen Kane, plus Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes film, The Aviator, and Broadway's Red, which starred Molina as painter Mark Rothko and earned a Tony Award for Best Play.
The cast, led by the crack-voiced Depp and the Dolly Parton--channeling Fisher, is flat-out flawless. But that's not surprising; they're all gifted veterans. Rango, though, is the first animated feature from director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) and the special-effects wizards at ILM. Somehow these novices figured out how to turn pixels into natural western landscapes; this looks like the most gorgeous live action movie. The scaly skin on its reptiles and the filthy hair on its rodents have a realism that's tactile, even if you wouldn't want to touch them.
And it's in glorious 2-D, so the images retain their full, sere radiance. No goggles, no gloom. And no competition for the coolest, orneriest, funniest, best-looking movie of early 2011.