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Movie Review: Lizards and light dance in ‘Rango’

It was somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, where “the drugs began to take hold” in the Johnny Depp adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

In the manic, animated “Rango,” which stars Depp as a chameleon, our coordinates are similar, and the hallucinogens are well under way. It’s as though the drug-conjured lizards of “Fear and Loathing” have been contracted by Hollywood and tasked to make a Western.

Go West, young reptile.

But “Rango” proceeds from a presumably more sober place: the mind of director Gore Verbinski, who helmed the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy. It’s his first animated film, but if you recall Depp’s Jack Sparrow, you’ll note that Verbinski is well acquainted with cartoon. “Rango” is also a first animated feature for the effects house Industrial Light & Magic.

Together, they’ve created perhaps the most cinematic animated film since Pixar’s “Ratatouille.” As a slapstick comedy, it doesn’t have the emotion resonance of a Pixar film, but it’s a visually stunning, endlessly inventive, completely madcap Western, made with obvious love for the genre.

“Rango” begins as movies should: with a Mariachi band of musical owls. Our narrators, they introduce the film and our hero, an early hint at the self-consciousness pervading the wink-filled “Rango.”

We find our chameleon protagonist in full theatrical flight, turning his pet lizard tank into a film set, with supporting roles played by an inanimate fish toy and a palm tree: “Acting is reacting,” he knowingly professes to no one.

With a wide, flat Don Rickles mouth and two giant bowl-shaped eyes, Rango, clad in a red Hawaiian shirt, doesn’t look like your normal animated hero. We quickly learn that he’s a precocious young actor whose life cooped up as a pet has habituated his imagination to flights of fancy. He is badly in need of an audience.

Rango is bounced out of his cage by a bump in the road and — in a beautifully done scene — tossed from the back seat of his unseen owners onto a Mojave Desert road, where he comes careening to a stop atop a broken piece of glass.

Spurred by an “enlightenment”-seeking armadillo (Alfred Molina), he sets out on a journey of self-discovery that includes momentarily landing on the windshield of the “Fear and Loathing” convertible, with Depp’s former character inside.

Rango winds up in the old, rickety desert town of Dirt. Despite a resume that includes, as he claims, two one-acts and a working musical, Rango — less a chameleon of color than of character — dons the role of gunslinger so that he might impress the townspeople.

Inside a saloon, he claims with great bravado that he comes from the West, “beyond the sunset,” and vanquished seven with a single bullet. Rango’s dialogue, from John Logan’s witty screenplay, is thoroughly Deppian in its verbosity. Rango boasts of eating men like the menacing Gila monster Bad Bill (Ray Winstone) for breakfast, adding: “Then we braise him in clarified butter.”

Rango is convincing enough that he’s made sheriff of Dirt. It’s a town teaming with ragged curiosities: a drunk rabbit (Stephen Root), a slinky fox (Claudia Black), a wide-eyed and cynical mouse (Abigail Breslin), the prairie dog Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton). There’s also the potential love interest lizard named Beans (Isla Fisher).

Dirt’s problem is water. Its dwindling supply is kept in a large jug in a bank’s vault. The town’s tortoise mayor (Ned Beatty) tells Rango: “You control the water, you control the desert.”

With folksy villainy and a creaky wheelchair, the mayor is a perfect stand-in for John Huston’s Noah Cross of “Chinatown.” That film supplies the frame for much of “Rango,” though only to a point. Incest is tabled and no nosey fellows get their nostrils sliced, but solving the mystery of the missing water is Rango’s mission.

He seems no better equipped than Jake Gittes to solve what he deems Dirt’s “aquatic conundrum.” (His advice to one little creature: “Burn everything but Shakespeare.”) But Rango is a method actor, and he eventually becomes the part.

As smart as “Rango” is, what most stands out is its simulation of light. With the great cinematographer Roger Deakins serving as a visual consultant and visual effects headed by Mark McCreery, the refraction of light in “Rango” may be the pinnacle yet in animation.

Shadows fall through the saloon — with glowing amber glasses of whiskey (or “cactus juice”) — so authentically designed that one swears the room full of gun-totting varmints is real. Wisps of dust swirl across the road’s cracked pavement.

Like Wes Anderson’s entry to animation, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Verbinski has brought live-action tools to an animated medium. The results in “Rango” are so lively that the post-movie conversation will go some time before any moviegoer remembers that 3-D was (thankfully) omitted.

The movie’s postmodernism could be considered too cloying, but it comes off charming, especially because it pulls from such great sources. The Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone are joyfully referenced, complete with a cameo from the Man With No Name (voiced by Timothy Olyphant, not Clint Eastwood). Hans Zimmer’s score is a playful ode to those of Ennio Morricone.

Perhaps a new classification has been born: the “SpaghettiOs Western.”

“Rango,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking. Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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