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A Mental Animated Flick:

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Starring Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, and Abigail Breslin

LOST LI’L LIZARD: Johnny Depp stars as the voice of “Rango” in a mental children’s tale full of entertainment. Courtesy photo.

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Mental. It’s a word I like to throw around but rarely get to use in film reviews. How many movies can I legitimately call “mental”? Usually, that adjective gets reserved for the works of David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky. More to the point, how many times can I call an animated kids’ film “mental”?

I’m tough on animated films, and rightfully so. Most of them are formulaic garbage that deserve nothing but scorn, piss and vinegar. This thought went through my mind as I was forced to sit through a half-dozen trailers for animated films coming out in 2011, each more painful than the last. Hollywood must hate children. That’s the only way I can explain the pain I endured while watching trailers for “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Mars Needs Moms,” “Hop,” “Puss In Boots” (a “Shrek” spin-off) and “Hoodwinked Too.” All the trailers were remarkably similar—a better way to put it might be “excruciatingly redundant.”

I was interested in seeing “Rango” for two reasons: one, Johnny Depp. There isn’t a performer working today as interesting and versatile as Depp. He’s a rarity in the film world—an actor who seems to delight in the bizarre and the macabre, while still managing to be a box office phenomenon. Sure, not all his films are great, but he always makes an effort. “Rango” is a worthwhile film because of Depp’s involvement.

Reason number two: the theatrical process in which the production was staged. Unlike most animated films where actors do line-reading solo, director Gore Verbinski (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) assembled his cast into a room and had them act out their scenes in front of one another. This may be inconsequential in the final product, but I’m a fan of technique.

“Rango” immediately differentiates itself from other animated films with a unique visual style. Simply put, the world of “Rango” is ugly—and it’s ugly by choice. The visuals are brilliantly rendered, and the characters are remarkably three-dimensional. But the choices were to make a grim and gritty desert landscape for the story to unfold.

Rango is a chameleon who lives in an aquarium. He spends his days staging shows and creating fantasy worlds for his amusement. His world is shattered, literally, when his aquarium is thrown from a moving car leaving him stranded in the Mojave Desert. The real world isn’t as kind and calm as his habitat. Rango quickly learns that survival is not easy. He ends up in the town of Dirt, a Wild West-style watering hole with a big problem: no water. A dwindling supply of H20 has left the grisly town looking to anyone that can bring them hope. A couple of tall tales later, Rango ends up as the town’s sheriff. When the last of the remaining water goes missing, Rango’s forced to lead a posse into the desert to try and find the scallywags who are responsible.

I mentioned the ugliness of this computer-generated world. The world itself is gorgeous. The characters that inhabit it are rather gruesome. Most animated films take animals and make them disgustingly cute. The animals in “Rango” are downright repellant: toothless gophers, wart-covered toads, a bird with an arrow sticking out its eye socket. I’ve never seen an animated film with such a creepy looking cast. Frankly, I loved it. These warped malcontents were far more interesting than the adorable creations Pixar and DreamWorks have been rolling out four-to-five times a year.

There’s also a lot of subversive stuff going on. How many animated films feature references to Sergio Leone and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”? At the core, “Rango” is an old-fashioned Western, taking a good poke at all the clichés that go along with them. Thankfully, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp add layer upon layer to the film.

This could have been another by-the-numbers kid flick. Thank God it wasn’t. I’ve been one bad computer-generated animated film away from junking the whole medium.

Audiences should like “Rango”—some will love it. I found myself in the “like” column. It’s funny and quirky, but it drags. Like all animated films, there’s a threshold. There’s only so much I can take of animals running around and screaming—the kind of attention-span-killing visual noise that makes my brain shut down. “Rango” makes some real strides at being something original and entertaining.

Rango | Movie Trailer | Review

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